The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees

Some 550 years ago, so a story goes, the poet-sage Kabir was on a silt island in India’s Narmada River. He was brushing his teeth with a twig. When he flung his toothbrush to the ground, up sprang a gigantic tree whose crown spread so wide it cast shade over a whole hectare of land. Today Kabir’s tree is one of the biggest plants on the planet. Its true story is no less extraordinary than the myth.

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It is a banyan (Ficus benghalensis), one of hundreds of species of fig trees. No other plants feature in so rich a mix of folklore and faith stories as the figs. And none is as awesome to behold as the banyan. Walk beneath Kabir’s tree’s crown and you will see the illusion of a forest, a tight mass of thousands of trees. But look closer and you will see that everything is connected. There is just one tree. The banyan’s Sanskrit names —nyagrodha, ‘the down-grower’ and bahupada, ‘the one with many feet’— hint at its secrets.

Many years earlier another tree had occupied the spot where Kabir’s banyan grows. That tree’s fate shifted when a bird, or perhaps a bat or monkey, passed by having fed earlier on ripe Ficus benghalensis figs. The animal pooped on the tree and condemned it to a slow death by smothering.

The animal’s droppings had delivered a banyan seed to a moist nook. Within weeks, the fig seed had split open. It sent up a firm stalk with a collar of two tiny green leaves. It sent down tiny roots that hugged the host tree as they stretched earthwards in search of soil. In time these roots would expand and enlace. They would encase the host tree and erase all trace of it.

As the banyan grew, its branches also sent out roots. They dangled like strands of unkempt hair. When they reached the ground these roots grew thick and woody and merged to form what looked like new tree trunks. The massive branches reached ever outwards, sending down yet more and more prop roots. These pillars formed increasingly wide circles around the banyan’s core, enclosing it in nested cloisters.

When British historian Thomas Maurice wrote about Kabir’s banyan in 1794, he said it had more than 350 of these false trunks, each one thicker than an English oak tree, and another 3000 smaller stems. He noted that locals said the tree was 3000 years old, suggesting it existed long before Kabir himself. This raises the possibility that it is the same banyan Alexander the Great and his army encountered on the Narmada River when they arrived in India in 326 BCE.

Alexander’s men were certainly the first Europeans known to have seen a banyan. They were amazed. The vivid descriptions they wrote down would inform Theophrastus, the father of modern botany, back home in Greece. But local people saw banyans as much more than impressive trees. The banyans had long been part of the cultural fabric. More than a thousand years earlier the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation adopted a stylised banyan as a symbol in their script. Later Vedic, Jain and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and stories mention banyans often.

To bodies, these trees provided shelter, food and medicines to treat dozens of disorders. To minds, they formed bridges to the supernatural. Gods and spirits moved among their leaves and pillar roots. By 500 BCE, Hindu texts described a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan that grew upside down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches reached to Earth to bring blessings to humankind.

The banyan became a potent symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It features in Hindu stories of the universe’s periodic death and rebirth, when everything that exists dissolves into a ceaseless sea. One story says an ‘undying’ banyan is the only thing to survive the deluge. Another says that to ride the sea’s currents, the god Vishnu assumes the form of a baby, lying on his back on a raft formed of a banyan leaf. With one breath the baby swallows all that surrounds it, taking the turbulent universe into the safety of his stomach before exhaling it into fresh existence.

These symbols of life became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to use them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan. India restored dignity to these trees when it gained independence and made the banyan its national tree.

While the British knew these trees by name, Alexander’s army would not have heard the word banyan. The name only arose more than a thousand years later when Portuguese visitors to India modified the Gujarati word vaniyan, meaning merchant. They named the tree banyan after the traders who set up their stalls in its shade.

A banyan is a natural meeting place, a vast umbrella of dark green leathery leaves that blocks out the sun or showers of rain. These trees form the centrepiece of many villages. Entire cities have even grown up around these trees. Vadodara in western India is one example. It is thought to derive its name from the Sanskrit word vatodar, meaning ‘in the heart of the banyan tree’. Asia’s oldest stock exchange, the Bombay Stock Exchange, was also born beneath a banyan in Mumbai where stockbrokers would gather in the 1850s.

In cities today, the banyans are curtailed by construction or cut down to make way for roads. But if left in peace, there is little to stop a banyan expanding. The biggest one on record exceeds even Kabir’s tree. It is said to have begun life in 1434 at the spot where a woman called Thimmamma died when she threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The tree, in Andhra Pradesh, now covers two hectares. Twenty thousand people can shelter beneath its crown.

All this from a seed that is just a couple of millimetres in length. Crack one open with your thumbnail and you won’t find much inside, yet the genetic material within has the power to create a tree vast enough to resemble a small forest. Ancient Hindu sages employed this paradox in a parable, which used the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel of atman, the invisible essence Hindus say permeates and sustains the universe and all it contains.

The banyan’s power reaches deep into our world. Like all fig species, these trees depend on specific wasps to enter their figs and pollinate the flowers hidden within. A side effect of this relationship is that banyan figs are available all year round. They offer a lifeline to birds, fruit bats, monkeys and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of tree species, planting the forests of the future. The banyans truly are trees of life.

This post was first published on 21 September 2016 by Newsweek. It is an edited extract of my new book Ladder to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, published by Unbound on 8 September 2016. Chelsea Green Publishing will publish an edition for the United States and Canada in November 2016, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

Photo credit: Chad Husby / Flickr (Creative Commons)

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 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 is out in the UK on 8 September, called Ladders to Heaven, and in the US and Canada in November with the title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

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

True or false? Figs contain dead wasps

Figs (Credit: Eric Hunt/Wikipedia - Creative Commons)

On a moonlit night in southern Africa a reproductive race is about to begin. The stakes are high but so are the risks. Most of the competitors will be dead or doomed by dawn. The starting line is a solitary fig tree whose gnarled form towers over a small stream. Figs hang in clumps from its branches like a plague of green boils. Tonight they erupt with life.

An insect emerges from a hole in one of the figs. She’s so small you could swallow her and not notice. She’s a fig-wasp with an urgent mission and her time is running out. All around her, thousands of her kind are crawling out of figs. Each one is a female with the same quest and each faces immediate danger.

So begins my new book’s chapter on fig-wasps, the tiny stingless insects that fig trees depend upon to pollinate their flowers and which can only breed inside figs. This 80-million-year-old partnership is a textbook example of species evolving together. Each of the 750-plus species of figs relies on its own species of fig-wasps, and vice versa.

My book shows how the world would be a very different place without fig-wasps. Hundreds of species of wild animal would go hungry, with knock-on effects for the thousands of other plant species whose seeds these animals disperse. Without fig-wasps there would have been no Ficus religiosa tree for the Buddha to sit beneath as he attained enlightenment. There would have been no fig leaves to protect the modesty of Adam and Eve, no banyan (Ficus benghalensis) to astound Alexander the Great.

Thanks to fig-wasps, fig trees and their figs have shaped the world about us and have influenced diverse human cultures in many remarkable ways. The best could be yet to come, as these species can be vital allies in our efforts to restore degraded rainforests. But when Ben Crair wrote about figs in the New Yorker this month, what caught the attention of many readers was his line: “When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

While that is certainly true of the hundreds of wild fig species, we tend to eat figs of just one species: Ficus carica. This plant is among the first that people ever cultivated for food – several thousand years ago. Over that long history farmers bred some Ficus carica varieties that no longer need wasps to produce ripe figs. So, for those varieties, there’s no trace of a wasp. Great news for vegans!

Other Ficus carica varieties do need wasps to pollinate their flowers in order for them to develop seeds, then become sweet and ripe. But as Anna Rothschild explains so well in her new Gross Science video (below), the wasps are so small and so few that you really won’t notice them.

Rest assured, when you bite into a fig, any crunch comes from fig seeds not wasp corpses.

*My book will be published in the UK (and ebook) on 8 September 2016 as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future. A North American edition, entitled Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is out in November 2016.

 

One book. Two titles. Coming soon. Get them while they’re hot.

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Nearly 20 years after I started putting ideas down on paper, my book is finally here. The UK title is Ladders to Heaven. It is available from 8 September 2016 as a hardback or ebook, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Unbound, and all good book stores.

Later this year, Chelsea Green Publishing will bring out an edition for the US and Canada, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. It is also available to pre-order from Amazon.

If you can’t wait, then I recommend journalist Ben Crair’s article Love the Fig, which The New Yorker published last week. It includes some quotes from me. I was also talking figs last week on BBC Radio 4’s comedy chat show The Museum of Curiosity. You can listen to the show online here until about 15 September.

Lastly, here is a preview of the text for back of the book, and below that a photo of the first batch of books themselves. Go on, you know you want one.

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty … more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. This book tells their amazing story.

Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilization. They feature in every major religion, starring alongside Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. This is no coincidence – fig trees are special. They evolved when giant dinosaurs still roamed and have been shaping our world ever since.

These trees intrigued Aristotle and amazed Alexander the Great. They were instrumental in Kenya’s struggle for independence and helped restore life after Krakatoa’s catastrophic eruption. Egypt’s Pharaohs hoped to meet fig trees in the afterlife and Queen Elizabeth II was asleep in one when she ascended the throne.

And all because 80 million years ago these trees cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. Thanks to this deal, figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other trees, making them vital to rainforests. In a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, their story offers hope.

Ultimately, it’s a story about humanity’s relationship with nature. The story of the fig trees stretches back tens of millions of years, but it is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.

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How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future

After many years of research, writing, illustrating, re-writing and more re-writing, my book Ladders to Heaven is about to be printed.

The publication date is 8 September 2016, but anyone pre-ordering a copy through Unbound will get their book before it reaches the shops, as soon as it is ready. And if you order by midnight (UK time) on 2 June 2016 you will be listed as a patron in the back of the book.

Here’s a preview of the book’s cover and summary text, and a montage of its 20 illustrations, which are available as prints via Unbound.

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Chapter-by-chapter preview of my book Ladders to Heaven

Here is an outline of each chapter of Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, the book I am crowdfunding through publisher Unbound. There’s a 10th chapter that I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s a secret for now.

If you like what you see, please considering reserving a copy. Everyone who does will have their name printed in each edition of the book. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit the Unbound site.

Chapter 1: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge

I will show you how fig trees inspired the co-founder of the theory of evolution, how they feature in the creation myths of diverse religions and cultures, and how these two facts are connected.

Chapter 2: A Long Seduction

I will show you how people have revered one special fig species in Asia for more than 5000-years. You will meet the Buddha and a bloodthirsty dictator. I will tell the tale of a fig tree that has travelled thousands of kilometres and been made a king, has helped spread a philosophy of peace and had its flesh torn by hot bullets during a brutal massacre.

Chapter 3: Banyans and Botanical Monkeys

You hear how fig trees influence the founders of biology, more than 2300 years ago in Greece, and how Alexander the Great encountered a fig tree in India that was big enough to shelter thousands of his soldiers. I will tell the story of a 20th century fig biologist whose extraordinary drive to botanise had him labelled a traitor and a spy.

Chapter 4: Sex and Violence in the Hanging Gardens

You will find out how an 80-million year-old partnership between fig trees and tiny wasps will influence the fates of forests and wildlife across the tropics. This story is surely one of the most astounding in all of biology. It is one of the most important as well, for without these tiny creatures and their interactions with fig trees, the world as we know it would not exist.

Chapter 5: Struggles for Existence

I’ll show tell you the story of the ancient relationship between birds called rhinoceros hornbills and the giant fig trees whose seeds they disperse. Both partners face extreme challenges in their bid to survive and reproduce. Their solutions have knock-on effects on thousands of other species.

Chapter 6: Goodbye to the Gardeners, Hello to the Heat

I’ll take you to Borneo where I lived in a national park for 18 months studying dozens of wild fig species and the animals that disperse their seeds. I’ll explain how climate change, hunting and deforestation threaten the 80-million year long reign of the fig trees, and what this could mean for us.

Chapter 7: From Dependence to Domination

I’ll show you how fig trees played crucial roles in human evolution and cultural development, as sources of food, medicine and more. The figs were influencing our ancestors long before they descended from the trees. You will meet dinosaurs and ape-men, ancient royals and strange spirits, pharaohs and farmers. I will explain timeless wisdom of letting fig trees stand tall.

Chapter 7: The War of the Trees

I will explain the ecological and cultural reasons fig trees played many curious roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence. You will find out how fig trees connect a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a rum smuggler, Queen Elizabeth II, a prophet and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Chapter 9: Once Destroyed, Forever Lost?

I’ll show you how fig trees could give yet provide us with their greatest gifts if we learn the lessons their biology can teach. I will tell you about a terrifying Time of Darkness, take you to volcanoes where fig trees have helped rebuild forests and share the story of a scientist with a vision of robots in rainforests.

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A fig tree swallowing a warehouse

Roots ooze through windows and cracks between bricks. They pour down walls and pool on the floor. They entwine with remnant beams from the roof their weight has crushed. They seal once-busy doorways and claim the rooms they hide. It’s a strangler fig in action, engulfing an entire building in Taiwan.

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I’m always on the lookout for interesting fig trees so was pleased to learn about this specimen known as the ‘Anping treehouse’ in an article by Jenny Zhang.

Strangler figs usually grow on other trees but some are as adept at colonising buildings. This one began its assault on an abandoned warehouse in the 1950s. For decades local people avoided it, heeding folk tales that say spirits lurk among strangler fig roots. The fig was free to thrive.

Those folk beliefs themselves have deep roots. Across large parts of Africa and Asia taboos against harming wild fig trees were once common. In some places they remain. My forthcoming book Ladders to Heaven explains the ecological basis for these ancient traditions and describes how fig trees and their powerful roots could bring us future benefits.

Photo credits: Flickr: riNux / Creative Commons; Blowing Puffer Fish / Creative Commons; Alexander Synaptic / Creative Commons

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