10 things you need to know about banyan trees

The splendid banyan trees I met today in a park in Honolulu, Hawaii prompted me to share some things I learned while researching my new book [US edition / UK edition / India] about how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced culture and can help us protect life on Earth. Here are ten nuggets:

  1. The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) is one of more than 750 species of fig trees, each of which is pollinated only by its own species of tiny wasps that breed only inside the figs of their partner trees.
  2. Banyans are strangler figs. They grow from seeds that land on other trees. The roots they send down smother their hosts and grow into stout, branch-supporting pillars that resemble new tree trunks.
  3. Banyans are the world’s biggest trees in terms of the area they cover. The biggest one alive today is in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It covers 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) and can shelter 20,000 people.
  4. Banyans are ecological linchpins. They produce vast crops of figs that sustain many species of birds, fruit bats, primates and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of other plant species.
  5. The first Europeans to encounter banyan trees were Alexander the Great and his army, who reached India in 326 BCE. The notes they took back to Greece informed Theophrastus, the founder of modern botany, and — ultimately — led 17th-century English poet John Milton to write in Paradise Lost that Adam and Eve made the first clothes from banyan leaves.
  6. Hindus say a banyan tree at Jyotisar is the one Krishna stood beneath when he delivered the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita.
  7. For thousands of years, people have used banyans as sources of medicines. Today in Nepal, people use banyan leaves, bark and roots to treat more than twenty disorders.
  8. Hindu texts written more than 2500 years ago describe a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan growing upside-down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches extend to Earth to bring blessings to humanity.
  9. During India’s struggle for independence from Britain, the British hanged hundreds of rebels to their deaths from banyan trees. Independent India made the banyan its national tree.
  10. Hawaii’s banyans are not native. People who have planted them there include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Amelia Earhart and Louis Armstrong.

Across the world, the banyans and many other fig species have embedded themselves in diverse human cultures, thanks to some amazing biology and an 80-million-year-old relationship with their pollinating wasps. As my book shows, these trees influenced the development of our species and can enrich our future too, by helping us to restore damaged rainforests and protect threatened wildlife.  The book was published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven, and in the US and Canada as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.
Readers in India can buy it here.

I’ll be writing a narrative article about banyans soon (update: here it is). Meanwhile, I will leave you with some more photos of the banyans I saw this morning. Aloha!

Related blog posts:

The stranglers that save lives when cyclones strike

Can living fig-tree bridges save lives in a changing climate?

Where falling fig trees portend political change


9 thoughts on “10 things you need to know about banyan trees

  1. I saw my first BANYAN TREE several years ago in SEGUIN,GUADALUPE CO. TEXAS. I thought it was the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. It is in a very large yard beside someones home. I took some pictures, just made me want a tree like it .How many years does it take for it to get to the point of the limbs to start spreading out?

    • Hi Sheila. The banyans grow quickly if the climate, etc., are right. The tree’s branches start producing aerial roots very soon

  2. I recently saw a video of a man in Indonesia who plants banyan trees to end drought because they somehow activate water supply? If you are familiar with this, can you explain how, and if it would work in drought stricken areas around the world. Sounds too good to be true, and yet…

    • Hi Stephanie

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Planting fig trees can help people deal with drought in a couple of ways. First, by making drought less likely (as in your example) and second by making drought tolerable. In drought-prone parts of Ethiopia for example, researchers have shown that planting fig trees of a species called Ficus thonningii can really help farmers. The fig trees are drought tolerant, so they don’t need to be watered. Their roots seek out water deep underground. The farmers gain by being able to plant crops such as coffee in the shade of the fig trees. The fig leaves provide free fodder for goats. Indeed, the goats that eat the fig-leaf fodder put on more weight than those fed commercial feed. 20,000 households have now planted these trees to help them survive in drought conditions. I wrote about this and other powers of fig trees here: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-nearly-magical-properties-of-fig-trees/

      Best wishes

  3. I was always fascinated by the Banyan Tree and saw a 400 year old species in Bangalore, India when I visited there in June of last year. It was breathtaking. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it and there were monkeys everywhere. What a spiritual experience just walking around it. I plan to make a painting of that Banyan tree. It has a fascinating history.

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