The Phyto-Philes: Banyan, Tree of Trees

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Banyan, Tree of Trees

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

banyan tree by Willem

After the big entry about a small plant that featured last time, here is a small entry about a big plant! This is the Indian Banyan, Ficus benghalensis. It is a relative of the Sycomore Fig as well as many other wild fig tree species. The fig tree genus, Ficus, is one of the largest among the trees, including hundreds of species in tropical and subtropical regions all around the world. In South Africa alone, there are dozens of wild fig species, displaying a great variety of forms. The Indian Banyan Tree is as you might conclude, not native to South Africa, instead growing in the Indian Subcontinent, but it is the most magnificent example of one particular fig tree growth form.

The Compound Tree

If you look at my little picture, you'll see the funny thing about the banyan. Ordinary trees have a single trunk supporting a canopy of branches bearing leaves. Some trees have more than one main trunk, but they branch from the base. The banyan tree does something quite different. It usually starts as a tree with a single trunk supporting a leafy canopy. But then, from points along the big branches, roots form, high above the ground! Called aerial roots, they lengthen and eventually their tips reach the ground. Then they enter the soil, grow and thicken. Eventually these roots form secondary trunks, helping to prop up the branches and providing nutrients to them so that these could keep growing longer and spread wider still and sprout new bundles of roots that can become yet more additional secondary trunks. So soon the tree has many separate trunks, and with this support the tree canopy can grow extraordinarily wide. In fact, the tree as a whole can become immense … tantamount to what looks like a whole forest, but being only a single tree! Not only are such specimens enormous, they are also weirdly and intriguingly shaped. The roots growing down from the branches look like dripping wax, the main and secondary trunks are surrounded with flaring buttresses, and where they reach the soil the roots snake and coil over the ground surface.

Banyans have been very important in Indian culture. They provide welcome shade in many hot places, and temples are often built beneath them. While the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, is said to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under another fig tree, the Bodhi Tree, Ficus religiosa, the seventh Lord Buddha, Kassapa, of Theravada Buddhism, is said to have achieved enlightenment underneath this species. It is considered sacred in India and is the country's national tree.

Tremendous specimens have also gone down in history. During the conquests of Alexander the Great, one of his generals rested his troops under one of these, the tree they chose being said to be big enough to shelter 7000 men. Trees have been recorded with 3000 individual trunks! Today, superlative specimens survive, one growing in the Indian Botanic Garen, and one, named Thimmamma Marrimanu, growing in the state of Uttar Pradesh, being the biggest of all. This tree has a canopy extending over a surface of 1.9 hectares! For comparison, my garden is just a tenth of a hectare and you might have seen how many trees and other plants I have here – not to mention the house, driveway, (ex-)swimming pool and lawns. A single tree covering almost two hectares is incredible! It is the most expansive single tree in the world, and also has the longest canopy circumference: 846 m/940 yards.

Like all wild fig trees, in nature the Banyan is very valuable, providing figs and shelter to monkeys, birds, pigs and much else besides. This species has also been planted outside of India, many tropical and subtropical botanic gardens sporting fine specimens.

While the Indian Banyan is the definitive exponent of this multi-trunked growth form, it is not the only fig species to feature it. Fig trees generally have extremely vigorous root systems, and are able to easily form roots from their trunks and branches. Many species in South Africa have prominent aerial roots, which may or may not reach the ground to form secondary trunks. There is one remarkable individual tree of the species Ficus salicifolia, called the Wonderboom or Wonder Tree, which grows in Pretoria and is now the focus of a reserve. Not quite like the Banyan, it is also a compound tree, where branches of the main tree drooped down and rooted in the ground, so becoming the supports for secondary trunks and branches which then again drooped down and rooted in the ground. In this case, the original trunk has already died and disintegrated, but the secondary trunks and their canopies are still standing, so there now being a grove of trees which all started as just one single individual and indeed are still genetically a single individual. The full-on multi-trunked-single-canopy growth form is rare here, however. But in Australia, Asia and South America, there are fig species very like the Indian Banyan, and some of them, too can become massive.

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