Although the banyan tree, which can be an entire woods all by itself, originally grew in Africa and India, there are some growing in the United States. In fact, the United States has two of the largest banyan trees in the world. The largest is believed to be in Calcutta, India, where it covers over four acres. Other gigantic banyans are in Sri Lanka, in Hawaii (where it is called the ora tree), and in Florida.
The inventor Thomas A. Edison had a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, and its grounds are the site of a huge banyan tree. When it was planted in 1925, it was 4′ (1. 2 m) tall and 2″ (5 cm) in diameter at its thickest part. Now it is 390′ (120 m) in circumference and still growing. The banyan tree can grow along the southern coast of Florida, where the coastal waters generate enough warmth to keep the trees from freezing. Banyan trees do not need a lot of care, but they do like a lot of water, rich soil, and warm temperatures.
Banyan seeds are carried to the tops of palms and other trees and dropped there by birds. Each seed begins life as an epiphyte, a plant that draws food and water from the air. The seed sprouts in the top of the palm tree. The branches that grow from the seed then grow supports, or “props,” that drop to the ground and immediately take root in the soil. These rooted props eventually become trunks and support the weight of the branches, which continue growing outward. In time the banyan takes over, and the palm tree dies.
It is hard to find the main trunk of a mature banyan tree. The large banyan on the island of Sri Lanka, located off the southeast coast of India, has 350 main trunks and more than 3,000 small ones.
Banyans are evergreen trees that belong to the fig genus of the mulberry family. Reddish fig-like fruit grows on them, but the fruit is edible only to bats and birds.
A coarse fiber from the bark and roots has been used in rope-making, and tent poles and cart yokes have been made from the strong roots. Birdlime, a substance hunters use to capture birds, is made from a sticky, white juice taken from the tree. But because the wood from banyan trees is soft and porous, it is not valuable to burn for heat or to use in construction.
Because the many trunks form columned “rooms,” merchants and traders in Africa and India use the banyan tree as a marketplace. Surely that is how it came to be called banyan, the Hindu word for trader.