The banyan tree, also referred to as the strangler fig, is the national tree of India and native to the Indian subcontinent. Variations of this majestic tree are also found in various tropical and subtropical regions where it is not too cold for the tree to survive. It is one of the more than 750 species of fig tree.
The banyan tree begins its life as an epiphyte, which means it is an aerial plant that grows attached to tree trunks or branches of another plant. Its tiny seeds do not fare well on bare soil, but rather like to germinate in a crack or crevice of a host tree or human edifice.
The banyan is an unusually shaped tree of the mulberry family. The canopy of the tree is very large with leaves that are large, leathery, glossy green, and elliptical. As the tree grows older, its branches send out numerous aerial roots that descend to the ground and take root. These roots turn into new trunks that strangle the host tree and spread the banyan tree laterally over a wide area. It can eventually resemble a grove of trees with every trunk connected directly or indirectly to the primary trunk.
One famous tree in India, called the Great Banyan Tree, covers an area the size of a Manhattan city block. It looks like a forest of trees but is actually some 3,600 aerial roots of a single tree.
The largest Banyan tree recorded is found in a botanical garden near Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). It occupies the better part of 5 acres, is more than 250 years old, and has branches as high as 80 feet.
Banyans are ecologically very important since they produce vast crops of figs that sustain many species of animals. In turn, these animals disperse the seeds of hundreds of other plant species that help maintain the ecosystem. For thousands of years, people have used banyans as sources of medicines. For example, today in Nepal, people use their leaves, bark, and roots to treat more than 20 disorders.