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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hindus say a banyan tree at Jyotisar is the one Krishna stood beneath when he delivered the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (update: here it is). Meanwhile, I will leave you with some more photos of the banyans I saw this morning. Aloha!