Getting to know the Ficus Bengalensis
Ficus bengalensis, which is variedly known as Bengal fig, Indian fig, East Indian fig, Indian Banyan, is most commonly referred to as the Banyan tree in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where it is endemic. The special feature of this tree is that it propagates roots from its branches which grown downward and take root and become trees with their own hardened trunks also. So, one banyan tree can look like a forest clustered with several small trees. Because of this method of propagation it can become a giant tree covering several acres of land. In one historic account of Alexander’s invasion of northern India, there is reference to a Banyan that sheltered 7,000 people. The multiple stems below the vast spread of the canopy of the branches and leaves give the impression of a room filled with columns. Sometimes even when the original trunk rots, the newer root-turned-trunks help support the tree. The Banyan on average grows to 21 meters in height and lives for many decades, and sometimes even centuries.
A Banyan tree in the Kolkata botanical garden is said to be more than a 100 years old. Its impressive dimensions include a main trunk measuring 13 feet in diameter. It has 230 trunks each as large as an oak tree and there are as many as 3,000 smaller trunks also. However, the tree that has the distinction of being the largest Banyan tree is in the Sri Lankan Island. That specimen boasts 350 large trunks and more than 3,000 small ones.
The Ficus bengalensis has easily identifiable large leaves and small flowers which become red fruits, which look a lot like cherries and these are eaten by birds and monkeys. There is another fruit, which resembles a fig that grows on the banyan tree, but this one is not edible. Those who study the Banyan are stuck by the extraordinary nature of this fruit because it is hollow. It serves as a container for the flower-bearing structure called a cyconia. The inside of the fruit is arranged with male and female flowers with the males carrying pollen and the females bearing seeds. The Banyan tree has soft and porous wood. The tree produces a sticky latex that is used by hunters to produce birdlime to capture birds.
One of the reasons it is venerated in the Indian subcontinent is that medicinal properties are attributed to various parts of this tree. Ayurvedic practitioners use the bark of the Ficus bengalensis as an astringent and it is seen as an effective tonic with diuretic properties. Traditionally, local populations have used the milky juice from the trees to deal with painful bruises and to cope with rheumatism and lumbago. It has also been used to fight toothache. Its leaves are heated over a fire and applied on abscesses as a poultice. The seed and the bark are considered cooling. Interestingly, modern pharmaceutical companies have established that the stem bark of the tree contains sitosterol, a-D glucose and meso-inositol. The leaves have petunidin di-glycoside and quercentin 3-galactoside and the fruits have cyanidin rhamnoglycoside and polysaccharides.
The Banyan tree has a special place in Indian culture and is venerated as a sacred tree. The Ficus bengalensis is very often found in old temple complexes in the region. The vast shady expanse beneath the tree makes it a popular gathering spot in many villages in the Indian subcontinent and a de facto location for small town politics, and even governance.
The Indian government has even issued a postal stamp of this tree to honor its role in the social and historical fabric of the region.