A banyan tree, native to India and part of the mulberry family, is an enormous tree with many uses and a vast history. Young plants put forth roots, which form secondary trunks to support the expansive limbs. These trunks send out more roots until they crowd out the host tree.
The leaves of the banyan tree are large, leathery, and used as animal fodder. The tree produces figs which are popular with birds and monkeys, and also produces flowers that attract wasps for pollination. Older trees can reach more than 200 meters (656 feet) in diameter, with a height of 30 meters (98 feet).
While native to India, banyan trees exist throughout South Asia. They are frequently planted near homes, temples, villages, and roadsides. In most villages, this type of tree provides a meeting place for the community. People gather in its shade to relax, discuss issues, and make decisions. In fact, the name banyan is derived from merchants called Banias, who rested under the trees to discuss their strategies. Alexander the Great is also said to have camped under a banyan tree that was large enough to shelter his army of 7,000 men.
Banyan trees have a variety of uses. They produce a special type of rubber, and their sticky milk is used in gardening. In the Nepal region, the milky sap is used for polishing copper and brass.
The wood and bark of the banyan tree are suitable for making paper, and the roots are often used to make ropes to secure wood bundles. The women in Nepal crush the tree's roots with a paste to create a hair and skin conditioner. This tree is also used to produce shellac, which is widely used as an adhesive and surface-finisher in the industrial world.
The banyan tree is also used for medicinal purposes. The sap treats external skin inflammations and bruising. The bark and seeds are used as a tonic to cool the body, as well as to treat patients with diabetes. The roots and sap are used to treat skin ulcers, dysentery, and toothaches. Twigs of the banyan tree are sold as toothpicks in India and Pakistan to promote dental health.
The banyan tree, considered sacred and representative of eternal life, is also a human symbol. In contemporary India, it is the national tree. Its linked roots and branches are sometimes used to symbolize the country's unity.
How Many Years Does a Banyan Tree Live?
It’s difficult to give an exact answer to this question because there is some debate about how to calculate an individual tree’s age if the outer roots have grown to the point that they are almost identical to the primary trunk. 200 to 500 years is a frequently cited estimate, though some argue that banyans can live for more than 1000 years. A famous banyan called Thimmamma Marrimanu is said to be more than 550 years old; it lives in southern India and in 1989 was acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest tree in the world. (The title has since been taken by a giant sequoia that was discovered in California in 2006.)
How Long Does it Take a Banyan Tree To Grow?
A banyan tree can grow from a seed to tree-sized in as little as five years, although the growth rate varies based on the amount of water and space available. Banyan seeds that land directly on the ground are likely to be shaded out by other plant life; the ideal spot for a seed to germinate is on another tree’s branch. A successful seed puts out aerial roots (so called because instead of being under the soil, they grow through the air towards the ground). Banyans continue to grow new roots as long as they are alive. These roots can end up enveloping and eventually killing the original host tree; banyans are also referred to as strangler figs. Roots become thicker and woodier as they age, which is why it can be difficult to determine which part of the tree is the primary trunk.
Can Banyan Trees Be Planted at Home?
Since banyan trees continue growing and spreading throughout their lifespans, you should make sure you have plenty of space before deliberately planting one in your yard. Locate it well away from buildings and paved areas such as patios or driveways, and remember that the banyan might end up enveloping and killing the tree it sprouts on or other plants. Banyans grow best in humid areas with exposure to lots of sunlight. They don’t survive cold weather; in the US they are almost never found outside of Hawaii and southern Florida.
Banyans can, however, be grown as potted houseplants. They thrive in warm temperatures and should be kept in a sunny spot that does not get below 55 degrees Fahrenheit; between 60 and 70 degrees is ideal. You will need to be precise with watering; the soil should be evenly moist without allowing water to pool. Allow the soil surface to dry out before the next watering. If you want to encourage the growth of aerial roots you will probably need to maintain high humidity by misting the plant frequently or using a greenhouse-like cover. Banyans may not be a good choice for a household with pets because the sap can be dangerous to dogs and cats if ingested or rubbed on the skin; humans sometimes experience skin irritation or allergic reactions as well.
You can pinch back shoots to limit the banyan’s size, or you can let it grow and transfer it to a larger pot as necessary. Indoor banyan trees are a popular choice for bonsai, which is the art of wiring and pruning a potted plant in order to control its shape as it grows.
Are There Different Types of Banyan Trees?
The classic banyan tree has the scientific name Fiscus benghalensis, but other Fiscus species are also called banyans. One of these species is F. microcarpa, which is native to many parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands as well as Australia. At least three other species are native to the Western Hemisphere and are found in South America, Central America, the Caribbean islands, and Florida. If you plan to grow a banyan tree be careful to select a species that is native to your area; F. microcarpa in particular is considered invasive outside of its native range.
Are Banyan Trees Native to Hawaii?
Although the banyan trees of Hawaii are well known, they are not native to the Hawaiian Islands. The oldest living banyan in Hawaii was a gift to the Maui sheriff, who planted it in 1873; it is now more than 40 feet tall and has its own park the size of a city block. The banyan still growing on the grounds of Iolani Palace was a gift to the King of Hawaii from Indian royalty, and wild-growing banyans can be found in various spots throughout the state.