On the Wildside

The Great Banyan Tree is a true wonder.
The Great Banyan Tree is a true wonder.

On our recent holiday in northern India we spent a few days in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where we made a special visit to see one of the true wonders of the botanical world - the ‘Great Banyan Tree’ which grows in the Indian Botanic Garden beside the Hooghly River.

The tree is over 250 years old and is made up of many huge spreading limbs which radiate outwards covering over a hectare, from the former central trunk.

All along these limbs hundreds of prop roots descend to the ground and hold up the whole tree.

In 1850 the same tree was visited by the celebrated botanist Joseph Hooker, who was brought up in Glasgow, later becoming director of Kew Gardens.

In his ‘Himalayan Journals’ he noted that the Great Banyan originally germinated from a seed deposited by a bird in the crown of a palm tree, which was eventually swamped by the Banyan and killed.

The Banyan is now fenced off, but from outside looks like a dense miniature forest.

The Banyan’s botanical name is Ficus benghalensis, in the Mulberry family (Moraceae).

Throughout the tropics there are over 850 different species of fig, of which a few are commonly cultivated and well-known - the Indian Rubber Plant Ficus elastica, the Weeping Fig Ficus benjamina, both often grown as house plants and the familiar Edible Fig, Ficus carica, cultivated in the Mediterranean area for its fruits.

Each fig is a hollow fleshy structure full of tiny flowers, and later on tiny seeds which give the familiar gritty sensation when eaten.

Pollination is brought about by a tiny wasp which has to squeeze through the minute mouth of the fig to reach the flowers, and each wild fig species is associated with its own unique kind of wasp.

Many kinds of wild fig are known as ‘Strangling Figs’ from the way they grow on other trees and eventually literally strangle their host to death with their roots.

We noticed one of these in the botanic garden, strangling not a tree but an abandoned brick building which was completely engulfed by the tentacle-like roots.

After Calcutta, Joseph Hooker visited Cherrapunji in the Khasia Hills (reputedly the wettest place on earth) where he made a very fine drawing of a ‘Living Bridge’ where the roots of wild figs had been trained across a river making a natural bridge.

Unfortunately we were not able to visit Cherrapunji to try this out - something for another trip perhaps!