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Ficus benghalensis L. 1753
pronounced: FY-kuss ben-gal-EN-siss
(Moraceae — the fig family)
common names: Banyan Fig, Bengal Fig, East Indian Fig, Indian Banyan
This is a species native to the Indian sub-continent, and is indeed the national tree of India. There were extensive plantings of it along the North Queensland coastline in the early 20th century, and some of these trees have developed into fine specimens, although many have been extensively pruned to restrict their growth. They are magnificent trees, but are very invasive, not only spreading into immense areas by sending down aerial prop roots to support the heavy branches, but also sending out their roots to undermine roads, pavements and buildings. The specimens in the Picnic Bay mall have had their branches on the inland side removed for the sake of allowing light to the lawns underneath.
Left to its own devices, the banyan fig can grow into a giant tree covering several hectares. One growing in the Indian Botanic Gardens at Howrah is thought to be the largest tree in the world in terms of area covered. The word ‘banyan’ actually means ‘merchant’, not ‘tree’. The early Portuguese traders picked up the word to refer especially to Hindu merchants, and passed it on to the English as early as 1599. English writers began to refer to the banyan tree, under which the Hindu merchants sat to conduct their business. Today, the tree is considered sacred in the sub-continent, where its ever-expanding branches represent eternal life. In Hindu mythology, it is also called kalpavriksha – ‘wish-fulfilling divine tree’.
Like other fig species, including the common edible fig Ficus carica, the flowers are within the enlarged fleshy receptacles (which we know as the fruits) and are fertilized by a specialist “in house” species of wasp that enters through a tiny hole in the bottom of the fruit. The wasps are housed throughout the year inside the fig’s hollow fruits (syconia) in one of natures most amazing symbiotic relationships between a tree and an insect. These wasps undoubtedly play a major role in allowing different fig species to grow in the same locality (“species packing”). The pollinating wasp for Ficus benghalensis is Eupristina masoni; this wasp is not present in Australia, and so the fruits from our trees are infertile. This is a good thing, or the species would probably have taken over Magnetic Island by now! Imagine the chaos in Picnic Bay Mall, if fig seedlings were growing all over the place, including the roof and walls of the hotel and shops – real-life Triffids!
The tree is a food source for caterpillars of the Common Moonbeam Philiris innotatus.
Banyan wood is hard, and durable in water. Although considered to be of little value, it is sometimes used for furniture and house building. The wood from the aerial roots is stronger than than from the trunk, and is used for poles and for bullock yokes.
The banyan is part of the coat of arms of the Indonesian Republic. It symbolizes the unity of one country with many far-flung roots. In the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, a ‘banyan’ means a spell ashore for a barbecue on some deserted beach. ‘Banyan rig’ is the informal clothing worn on such occasions.
Many parts of the tree are used medicinally in parts of India. A poultice of the leaves is used to treat ulcers, the aerial roots for gonorrhoea, the fruits for a tonic, the roots for obstinate vomiting, and an infusion of the bark is considered to be a tonic, and is also used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery and diabetes.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2006-2008
Page last updated 4th December 2016