I have been a tree lover for as long as I can remember. As a child growing up in Miami, Florida, we had a big ficus tree in our front yard that was a favorite for climbing. In my memory it was huge but it probably wasn’t much taller than 30.’
The biggest ficus trees growing in Miami and in other parts of Dade and Broward County Florida are Banyan trees, Ficus benghalensis. Native to India (and other parts of the world), where it is also the national tree, this ficus has deep roots, and lots of limbs as well as aerial roots which hang down from limbs. Growing along roadsides these mysterious and dramatic trees create the feeling of a rainforest. And, of course the shade they create is especially welcome in hot, sunny climates like Miami or India.
In looking at its scientific name, the genus refers to the Latin name for fig and the species comes from the city Benghal in India. The common name banyan is very similar to “banians”, the Hindu traders who rested under the shade of these magnificent trees. Huge specimens can spread out and cover the equivalent of an acre, providing shade from hot sun. Reports vary but trees have been known to get as large 98’ tall and more than 650" in diameter. The overall effect is more like a forest of trees instead of one tree.
In the Hindu culture, there are many positive benefits associated with Banyan trees including the idea that they fulfill wishes. Whether this is fact or fiction, it is known that these trees are long-lived and fascinating. In India, Banyan trees are known to exist that are over 200 years old. Practical uses for this tree include using the sap of the lac insect, which is a parasite on the banyan tree, to make shellac, and paper from the wood. Twigs are also sold as toothpicks in India and Pakistan.
The largest Banyan tree in the continental US is growing on the grounds of the Edison and Ford Winter Estate in Ft. Myers, Florida (now a museum open to the public for tours). Thought to have been planted around 1925 at what was then Thomas Edison’s winter home, this record holder is 84’ tall and 376 inches in circumference. Some people speculate that the original tree was a gift from Firestone. In addition to his electrical experiments, Edison was known for his experimental work with trying to produce rubber (he was interested in a commercial venture) and the thousands of plants he grew.
Another Banyan tree of note is the 80-plus-year-old specimen in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The founder of this community, John D. McArthur moved a tree to his “garden community” that would have otherwise been cut down. It weighed 75 tons and was 60’ high. The limbs reached out 125.’ Getting the tree to its new location was no small undertaking and fraught with challenges. The reward is that today both this Banyan and another that was added to the same site are alive and well.
What trees do you remember from childhood? Have you experienced the magic of a Banyan tree? Tell us! We love to hear your stories.