The Banyan is one of our most hospitable trees even though it often begins life as a killer. Though it has the capacity to create a forest all on its own it nevertheless needs a miniscule wasp to ensure propagation. And in a strange reversal of roles, its roots grow in the air, hanging down from branches before they miraculously change into trunks themselves. This is one of our most revered trees and an integral part of  our myths and legends.

How attractive is the Banyan Tree? First things first.

For centuries, the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) has astounded travellers to this country with its singular growth form and its sheer size. Stories of India’s majestic banyans stirred the interest of the Greeks after reports that Alexander the Great and his army of 7,000 took shelter under a single tree. The ancient Greek historian Arrian in his book on the history of India, quotes Alexander’s admiral Nearchus thus: “10,000 men could easily shelter themselves under the shade of one of those trees, so great is their magnitude.”

Several centuries later, the tree’s hold on the western imagination had not waned. To the western mind, this “marvel of the vegetable kingdom” seemed to embody the romance, fecundity and exotic appeal of India. Travellers wrote about it, sketched it and even tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to take back portions of it to grow back home.

Milton himself immortalized the tree in his poem ‘Paradise Lost’, when he wrote,

In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms

Branching so broad and long, that in the ground

The bended Twigs take root, and Daughters grow

About the Mother tree, a Pillar’d shade

High over-arch’d, and echoing Walks between;

There oft the Indian Herdsman shunning heate

Shelters in coole, and tends his pasturing Herds

At Loopholes cut through thickest shade.

Is it really that big a deal?

Yes. The very name that we know it by comes from the baniyas, members of the trading classes, who liked to set up shop in the “pillar’d shade” of banyans, a practice that carries on to this day. In fact, the country’s oldest stock exchange, the Bombay Stock Exchange, established in 1851, also began its business under banyan trees opposite the Town Hall, where Horniman Circle is now situated. Ten years later, the stock brokers moved to another set of banyan trees at the junction of Meadows Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road. It wasn’t until 1874 that they moved out from under banyans to their present location on Dalal Street.

Enter Wasp. And other Science-y stuff.

All species of Ficus have a unique pollination system. Have you noticed that fig trees, the banyan included, never seem to have flowers, and yet bear fruit? In reality, the fruit-like structures we call figs bear the flowers inside them. Each such ‘fruit’, technically called a syncomium, is actually a container lined on the inside with numerous flowers, both male and female. Responding to chemical cues from the figs, a tiny female wasp enters the synconium through a small hole at the tip. She comes in laden with pollen from the male flowers of another banyan tree, so that as she lays her eggs inside the ovaries of some female flowers, she also pollinates the other female flowers.

Tree seeds and wasp eggs grow together until a few weeks later, shortly before the figs ripen, male wasps emerge out of their eggs, mate with the female wasps, and then die, never to leave the fig, making reproduction their only purpose.

So closely intertwined is the interaction between the figs and their fig-wasps that the male fig flowers mature and release pollen just as the inseminated female wasps leave. As the female wasp climbs out of the syncomium, she brushes past the male flowers and carries their pollen with her as she sets out to look for another tree with figs where she will now lay her eggs. You can say that the female wasp is brutal, but a woman’s gotta do, what a woman’s gotta do.

What makes this complex mutualism between fig and fig-wasps even more remarkable is that in most cases, each species of fig tree has its own specific pollinating fig wasp: banyans will not produce seeds without their wasps and the wasps cannot lay their eggs in any other trees. So that’s where the loyalty is maintained.

Written by: Meera Iyer
Photographs: Namrata Khandekar-Boileau
Copy editor: Alice Agarwal

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