Trumpet tree is an awkwardly branched, open-crowned tree with alternate leaves about a foot (30 cm) wide clustered at tips of inwardly curving stems. It can grow to 70 ft (21 m) tall, but most trees are much smaller. The leaves have 7-11 palmate lobes and are borne on long petioles which attach near the center of the leaf. Leaves are rough-textured and dark green above and felty white underneath. The smooth gray bark on young trees is ringed with leaf scars. The flowers are small inconspicuous yellow catkins. They are followed by numerous small seeds embedded in 3 in (7.5 cm) long soft-fleshed fruiting stems. Prop roots sometimes develop at the base of the tree. Cecropia peltata is often confused with C. palmata, which has leaves divided almost to the base (as opposed to a third of the way in) and longer fruits. C. peltata may also be mistaken for Didymopanax morototoni, an unrelated lookalike tree.
Location Cecropia peltata is native to Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean, and it has naturalized in parts of Africa. This is an early-succession species adapted to grow rapidly in disturbed areas. It is therefore most common in secondary woods and along forest edges.
These are fast growing, short-lived trees. Young specimens can put on 2-3 in (5-8 cm) diameter per year. They need fertile soil to grow well and dislike competition from lawn grasses. Light: Trumpet tree does best in full sun. Moisture: These trees grow best on well drained soils with ample moisture. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. This is a very frost sensitive tree that throws a dramatic tantrum and flings big brown leaves all around when it gets chilled. Propagation: Trumpet tree can be propagated from seed, but the seeds germinate slowly. In the wild, the seeds are dispersed by bats and birds.
Usage Cecropias are widely planted for tropical landscape effects. The young buds may be eaten as a cooked vegetable. The corrosive and astringent latex is used against warts, calluses, herpes, ulcers, dysentery, and venereal diseases. The leaves of both Cecropia peltata and C. palmata are used in herbal medicine under the name "embauba leaf." A tea made from the leaves is widely employed as a cure for asthma and thought to be useful in treating a wide variety of other ailments including liver disease, cardiovascular problems, Parkinson's disease, and snakebite. It also is used to ease childbirth and menstrual complaints. The trumpet tree's main trunk is solid and composed of a soft, weak, brittle, lightweight wood. It is combined with cement to make insulation board and made into excelsior, matchsticks, crates, toys, partitions, and paper pulp. The wood ignites readily from friction and makes good tinder. A latex rubber is made from the milky sap and the inner bark yields a coarse fiber. The leaves are sometimes used as sandpaper. The hollow stems have been fashioned into musical instruments, fishing floats, life preservers, water troughs, gutters, and bottle "corks." The dead leaves dry dark mahogany brown above and white beneath, and curl into interesting sculptural forms which can be used in dried arrangements.
In addition to providing quick (though patchy) shade and tropical atmosphere, the trumpet tree makes a fine ecological conversation piece. In the tree's native habitat biting ants live in the hollow stems. In a mutually beneficial relationship, the small but fierce ants clean the tree of debris and protect it from leaf-cutter ants and other herbivores, while the tree provides the ants with shelter and food in the form of special food-bodies produced along the undersides of the leaf stems.
Many regions lack the ants that live in wild Latin American trumpet trees, but it is wise to be cautious around these trees until you are certain that the ones you are dealing with are ant-free.