Jungle Beat: Hilo's Famous Banyan Trees

The enormous Banyan trees on Hilo's Banyan Drive are famous around the world. They are old (planted in the 1930s), huge and named after the important people who planted them, such as: Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart.

How Big Do They Get?

The banyan, which hails from India and is considered sacred there, is one of the world's largest trees. It can reach a height of 60 feet with a diameter of up to 600 feet. Mature banyans can cover an area as large, or larger, than two acres! It belongs to the fig plant family in the genus ficus, which includes 900 species. Our banyans fall into the species benghalensis. According to the Kew Gardens (U.K.) website: "The English name comes from 'banyans' or 'banians,' which were the Hindu traders seen resting or carrying out their business under the tree canopy."

Medicinal Properties

In the Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition, ficus benghalensis is used medicinally to treat a number of different ailments. When the bark, root fiber, leaves, seeds or milky juice are prepared in certain ways, they can serve as an astringent for the bowels and other digestive organs. This plant has also been used to treat fevers, inflammations, leprosy (Hansen's disease), gonorrhea, dysentery and liver problems.

In the Amazon region of South America, indigenous people dig the roots of one banyan species, dry them and then smoke them in the belief that this treatment will relieve pain.

Commercial Uses

Some banyan species have commercial uses, such as providing shellac. Lac is a resinous secretion that comes from several insects, such as the Laccifer Lacca, that are parasites of banyan trees. In some parts of the world, banyan trees are farmed for this lac, and purposely inoculated with the insect. A product called French polish includes shellac; it is used for finishing wood and produces a very glossy surface.

Banyan leaves are sometimes fed to animals, but the fruits are small and are used as human food only during famines.

Invasiveness Potential

Because the banyan tree starts its life as en epiphyte, it sometimes grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients, according to the Free Dictionary. The roots of some ficus tree species can strangle their host tree, giving them the nickname, "strangler fig." Ficus barbata, which is native to the Caribbean island of Barbados, is a big problem in the rainforest areas of Central and northern South America.

Another species, ficus aurea, is native to Florida and has become quite invasive in that part of the world. Some species of ficus grow in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and other parts of Central America. Although they have provided food and shelter for many types of animals over the centuries, they are believed to have contributed to the destruction of the vast Mayan cities. When their seeds landed on the rocks, which made up temples and other structures, they grew into powerful trees, whose roots forced the stones to separate and crumble.

Luckily, the banyan trees growing in Hawai'i have not manifested themselves as an introduced invader. According to the University of Hawai'i's "Weed Risk Assessment", the ficus benghalensis has a low risk of becoming invasive, as do ficus benjamina (a common houseplant) and ficus carica, the common edible fig.