Like other fig species, banyans bear their fruit in the form of a structure called a "syconium". The syconium of Ficus species supply shelter and food for fig wasps and the trees depend on the fig wasps for pollination.
Frugivore birds disperse the seeds of banyans. The seeds are small, and because most banyans grow in woodlands, a seedling that germinates on the ground is unlikely to survive. However, many seeds fall on the branches and stems of other trees or on human edifices, and when they germinate they grow roots down toward the ground and consequently may envelop part of the host tree or edifice. For this reason banyans bear the colloquial name "strangler fig". A number of tropical banyan species that compete for sunlight, especially of the genus Ficus, exhibit this strangling habit.[page needed]
The leaves of the banyan tree are large, leathery, glossy, green, and elliptical. Like most figs, the leaf bud is covered by two large scales. As the leaf develops the scales abscise. Young leaves have an attractive reddish tinge.
Older banyan trees are characterized by aerial prop roots that mature into thick, woody trunks, which can become indistinguishable from the primary trunk with age. Old trees can spread laterally by using these prop roots to grow over a wide area. In some species, the prop roots develop over a considerable area that resembles a grove of trees, with every trunk connected directly or indirectly to the primary trunk. The topology of this massive root system inspired the name of the hierarchical computer network operating system "Banyan VINES".
Looking upward inside a strangler fig where the host tree has rotted away, leaving a hollow, columnar fig tree
In a banyan that envelops its host tree, the mesh of roots growing around the latter eventually applies considerable pressure to and commonly kills it. Such an enveloped, dead tree eventually decomposes, so that the banyan becomes a "columnar tree" with a hollow, central core. In jungles, such hollows are very desirable shelters to many animals.
The name was originally given to F. benghalensis and comes from India, where early travellers observed that the shade of the tree was frequented by Banyans (a corruption of Baniyas, a community of Indian traders).
In the Gujarati language, banya means "grocer or merchant", not "tree". The Portuguese picked up the word to refer specifically to Hindu merchants, and passed it along to the English as early as 1599 with the same meaning. By 1634, English writers began to tell of the banyan tree, a tree under which Hindu merchants conducted their business. The tree provided a shaded place for a village meeting or for merchants to sell their goods. Eventually, "banyan" became the name of the tree itself.
The original banyan, F. benghalensis, can grow into a giant tree covering several hectares. Over time, the name became generalized to all strangler figs of the Urostigma subgenus. The many banyan species include:
The shortleaf fig (Ficus citrifolia) is native to southern Florida, the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and South America south to Paraguay. One theory is that the Portuguese name for F. citrofolia, os barbados, gave Barbados its name.
The Florida strangler fig (Ficus aurea) is also native to southern Florida and the Caribbean Islands, and distinguished from the above by its coarser leaf venation.
Early stages of a strangler fig on a host tree in the Western Ghats, India
Due to the complex structure of the roots and extensive branching, the banyan is used as a subject specimen in penjing and bonsai. The oldest, living bonsai in Taiwan is a 240-year-old banyan tree housed in Tainan.
Banyan trees figure prominently in several Asian and Pacific religions and myths, including:
The banyan tree is the national tree of India. It is also called Indian or Bengal fig. This tree is considered sacred in India and can be seen near a temple or religious center. It is a big tree and gives shade to travelers in very hot summer months. An old custom offers worship to this tree.
In Hinduism, the leaf of the banyan tree is said to be the resting place for the god Krishna.
In the Bhagavat Gita, Krishna said, "There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas." (Bg 15.1) Here the material world is described as a tree whose roots are upwards and branches are below. We have experience of a tree whose roots are upward: if one stands on the bank of a river or any reservoir of water, he can see that the trees reflected in the water are upside down. The branches go downward and the roots upward. Similarly, this material world is a reflection of the spiritual world. The material world is but a shadow of reality. In the shadow there is no reality or substantiality, but from the shadow we can understand that there is substance and reality.
The banyan tree is also considered sacred and is called vat vriksha (IASTva?a v?k?a, ) in Sanskrit, in Telugu known as? ; marri chettu, in Kannada language known as: 'Alada mara' and in Tamil known as: ' ?' ; ala maram. The god Shiva as Dakshinamurthy is nearly always depicted sitting in silence under the banyan with rishis at his feet. It is thought of as perfectly symbolizing eternal life due to its seemingly unending expansion.
In spoken Marathi, the tree is known as vad (), derived from the original Sanksrit word va?a for the tree. Married Marathi women observe a fast called Vat Savitri Vrat for the well-being and long life of their husband. Tying a thread around the banyan or vat tree is an important part of the ritual.
In modern parlance in the Hindi language, it is known as "bargad"( ?), "vata vriksh"( ), and "barh"().
In Buddhism's Pali canon, the banyan (Pali: nigrodha) is referenced numerous times. Typical metaphors allude to the banyan's epiphytic nature, likening the banyan's supplanting of a host tree as comparable to the way sensual desire (k?ma) overcomes humans.
In many stories of Philippine mythology, the banyan (locally known as balete or balite) is said to be home to a variety of spirits (diwata and engkanto) and demon-like creatures (among the Visayans, specifically, the dili ingon nato, meaning "those not like us"). Maligno (evil spirits, from Spanish for 'malign') associated with it include the kapre (a giant), duwende (dwarves), and the tikbalang (a creature whose top half is a horse and whose bottom half is human). Children at a young age are taught never to point at a fully mature banyan tree for fear of offending the spirits that dwell within them, most especially when they are new to the place. Filipinos always uttered a respectful word or two to the spirits in the banyan tree when they are near one, walking near or around it to avoid any harm. Nearly every Filipino believes that provoking the spirits in a banyan tree can cause one great harm, illness, misfortune, untold suffering, and death.
In Sabah, formerly North Borneo, Nunuk Ragang or Red Banyan is traditionally considered to be the site of the longhouses, sheltering the 10 families (immigrants from Taiwan or Southern China) who were the ancestors of the present-day kadazan-Dusun population of 555,647 (2010 census).
Thimmamma Marrimanu is a banyan tree in Anantapur, located circa 35 km from the town of Kadiri in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. It is present in the Indian Botanical Gardens and is more than 550 years old. It is reported to be the world's biggest tree with a canopy of 19,107 m2. Its branches spread over 8 acres, hence it was recorded as the biggest tree in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989.
In rural parts of India, many villages and towns have a traffic circle and a community gathering place around a big banyan tree. At night, many people come to sit, relax, and chat around it. Usually, a small deity is placed and worshipped at its foot.
The banyan is part of the coat of arms of Indonesia. It is meant to symbolize the unity of Indonesia - one country with many far-flung roots. As a giant tree, it also symbolizes power. Soeharto used it as a logo for his party, the Golongan Karya (Golkar), taking advantage of the deeply rooted belief of his fellow-countrymen and women in the sacred (sakti) nature of the banyan.
The Economistmagazine features an opinion column covering topics pertaining to Asia named "Banyan".
In southern Vanuatu, the clearings under banyan trees are used as traditional meeting places. The quarterly newsletter of the British Friends of Vanuatu Society is named Nabanga, after the local word for banyan.
^Zhou Zhekun; Gilbert, Michael G. (2003). "Moraceae"(PDF). In Zhengyi Wu; Raven, Peter H.; Deyuan Hong (eds.). Flora of China. Volume 5. pp. 21-73. ISBN978-1-930723-27-6. Archived from the original(PDF) on 1 September 2006.
^See, e.g., SN 46.39, "Trees [Discourse]," trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Sa?yutta Nik?ya (Boston: Wisdom Publications), pp. 1593, 1906 n. 81; and, Sn 2.5 v. 271 or 272 (Fausböll, 1881, p. 46).
^"Ghost stories: Taotaomona, duendes and other spirits inhabit Guam". Pacific Daily News. Guam. 28 October 2007.