Indian Banyan – Ficus benghalensis
Other Names: Banyan, Banyan Fig, Indian Fig, East Indian Fig, Bengal Fig, Vada Tree, Figuier des Pagodes, baut (Bengali), Bar or Bargad (Hindi), marri chettu (Telugu), aalamaram (Tamil), vat (Sanskrit), roptri (Kriol), dawu (Yolngu).
Distinctive Characteristics: The Indian Banyan is known for its multiple aerial roots that propagate downward from the canopy, penetrating the ground and growing into multiple woody, pillar-like trunks. This tree, with a thick canopy of evergreen leaves, can spread out laterally indefinitely, covering a very wide area to form its own "forest." The Banyan can grow as a single-trunk tree, but more likely it grows as a parasitic 'strangler fig': born from a seed dispersed by a bird or bat atop a tree, it starts life as an epiphyte, absorbing nutrients and water from the air, dropping down multiple aerial roots from the host's branches that eventually take root in the earth. Over time, roots aggressively intertwine the trunk and fuse together, creating a latticework. Out-competing the host for space, nutrients and light, eventually the new tree becomes freestanding. After it establishes other trunk-like props, the tree can survive even if its original trunk is removed or decayed. In terms of canopy coverage, Banyans are the largest trees in the world.
Distribution: Native to India and Pakistan, throughout the subcontinent. Elevation: in India, sea level to 3,900 ft. (1,200 m).
Ecosystem: Grows in tropical and subtropical forests.
Maximum Age: 300 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: 98 ft. (30 m) in height; 28 ft. (8.5 m) in circumference. One individual, named Thimmamma Marrimanu, in Andhra Pradesh, India, covers 5 acres (2 hectares). A tree known as The Great Banyan, in Kolkotta, has more than 3,300 aerial roots touching the ground, and covers an area of 4 acres (1.5 hectares).
Animal Community: Many small animals and birds find refuge in the tree. The figs are eaten by birds such as Indian myna birds. All Ficus species are dependent upon one species of wasp to pollinate them; the Indian Banyan relies on Eupristina masoni for reproduction.
Medicine: The milky latex sap was applied externally to treat pains and bruises; ingested to treat nausea, inflammation, or rheumatism; or used as a toothache remedy or an aphrodisiac. The aerial root was used to treat bleeding, gum infections, nausea, hemorrhoids, venereal diseases, female sterility, and inflammation of the liver. The root and leaves were used to treat diarrhea. The leaves were used to treat ulcers. A paste made of the leaves was applied to relieve skin disorders. The bark was used to treat diabetes. String made of the bark was tied to heads to cure headaches and to make tourniquets.
Food: The small, scarlet-red fruits can be eaten fresh or dried, although they are not favored. The young leaves and shoots are also eaten as food in times of famine.
Fiber: The bark has been used for making paper and ropes.
Tools and Objects: The aerial roots have been used for making poles and cart yokes. String was made from the bark for fishing lines and nets, bags, fixing spearheads to shafts, baskets, ornaments, slings.
Art and Ceremony: Venerated in Hindu culture as "the wish-fulfilling tree," this was one of the trees of religious importance during the Vedic period. It is the national tree of the Republic of India. Parts of the tree were used to create a 'Morning Star Pole' and arm and headbands (Bardi). Bark or roots were made into necklaces (Iwaidja). Latex sap was used to adhere feathers to performers' bodies (Kurlama), and put into beards (Tiwi).
Shelter: While the wood itself can be harvested for construction, a spreading tree's canopy and entire structure can provide shelter from winds and storms.
Modern Uses: A type of shellac is produced from a resinous secretion called lac, created by various insects that live on the tree, including Laccifer lacca. The shellac has many industrial uses, and is an ingredient in beauty products. The trunk wood is used to make furniture.
Threats and Conservation: Not threatened.