Ficus benghalensis (banyan)
The banyan is a type of strangling fig, native to India and Pakistan. Known in Hindu mythology as 'the wish-fulfilling tree', banyans represent eternal life.
Berry and branch of Ficus benghalensis (Image: Melanie Thomas, RBG Kew)
Tropical forest, but frequently cultivated elsewhere in the tropics.
The latex of various species of Ficus can cause allergic skin reactions and contact with the eyes should be avoided.
About this Species
Native to India and Pakistan, the banyan is a type of strangling fig. The plant begins life growing on other trees and eventually envelopes them completely. Aerial roots hang down from the branches and these eventually become trunks. This circle of trunks deriving from one original tree can reach an enormous size – 200 metres in diameter and 30 metres in height. Their welcome shade has made them important gathering places. Known in Hindu mythology as 'the wish-fulfilling tree', banyans represent eternal life. The tree is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists in India and is frequently planted around temples. Being a majestic ornamental tree it is also planted in parks and along streets in the tropics. In temperate climates it is grown as a houseplant.
The banyan is a source of dye and shellac – an important ingredient in French polish – produced by lac insects which inhabit the tree as pests.
Geography & Distribution
Asia (India and Pakistan), naturally occuring in tropical forests throughout the subcontinent.
Ficus benghalensis, watercolour on paper, by unknown Indian artist, commissioned by William Roxburgh, Calcutta, India, early 19th century
Tree, often very large, up to 30 m tall, with many aerial roots which can develop into new trunks so that the tree goes on spreading laterally indefinitely; a single tree can thus cover a very wide area. The leaves are leathery, entire, ovate or elliptic, 20-40 cm long with prominent lateral veins. The figs are 1 to 2 cm in diameter, without stalks, in pairs in leaf axils, and when ripe are bright red.
Ficus benghalensis (Image: Peter Gasson)
Banyan is used in the production of shellac, an ingredient of French polish. Shellac is derived from a resinous secretion called lac, produced by various insects living on the tree, the most commercially important of which is the lac insect (Laccifer lacca). Shellac has many industrial uses, and is an ingredient of hair lacquer. Lac dye is used in skin cosmetics. Banyan has many uses in traditional medicine, for example, the milky sap is applied externally for treating pains and bruises, and is a remedy for toothache. Despite this, scientists are only now beginning to investigate the plant, for example leucocyanids, which may have potential for treating diabetes, have been isolated from the tree .
Banyan wood is hard, and durable in water. Although considered to be of little value it is used for furniture and house building. The wood from aerial roots is stronger and is used as poles and for cart yokes. Fibre from the bark is used for making paper and ropes. Banyan fruits can be eaten fresh or dried, and the young leaves and shoots are also eaten as famine food.
A tender plant that is drought-resistant, it is grown indoors in the UK, however it is a common street tree in tropical countries. Use well-drained, organic compost and Ficus benghalensis benefits from regular feed with a balanced NPK fertilizer.
Its pollinator is a single species of wasp, Eupristina masoni, which is not present in the UK. Thus, no viable seeds produced away from the tropics.
Propagation by apical or inter-nodal cuttings in light, free-draining compost in a high heat and humidity environment. Plants exude latex when cut. To stop bleeding dip cut part into charcoal powder. It can also be propagated from fresh seeds soaked in hot water for 12 hours.
References & Credits
Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, 4 vols. Macmillan, London.
National Institute of Science Communication (1948-1976). The Wealth of India: a Dictionary of Indian Raw Materials and Industrial Products. Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, New Delhi, 11 vols.
Plant Cultures website: http://www.plantcultures.org/plants/banyan_production__trade.html
Sosef, M.S.M., Hong, L.T. and Prawirohatmodjo (eds) (1998). Plant Resources of South-East Asia, No. 5(3). Timber trees: lesser-known timbers. Backhuys, Leiden.
Usher, G. (1974). A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man. Constable, London.
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