Strangler Figs - Banyan Trees

Strangler figs are epiphytic Ficus trees that grow in the canopies of other trees.  Several Ficus species exhibit this growth habit including F. aurea, citrifolia and benghalensis (the world's largest banyan tree).

Strangler fig trunks.

This banyan tree is growing in Florida at the Naples Zoo.

These trees do not actually strangle their victims, though their massive, sometimes curving, adventitious roots appear to be doing exactly that.

Banyan trees (another name for strangler fig trees) kill the trees they grow on by hogging all the light.

Plants need a certain amount of light in order to eat. Without it they cannot photosynthesize their food and they die.

How Does a Strangler Fig Tree Come to Live in Another Tree?

Ficus aurea* produces a half inch long, oval-shaped yellow fruit that have earned it the common name, golden fig. Golden fig seeds sprout easily. They can be carried into the canopy of another tree by birds or any small animals that climb into trees.

The seed sprouts in the host tree’s canopy and begin to grow. The young banyan lives as an epiphytic vine until its roots grow long enough to reach the ground. Once they touch soil, banyan roots take hold quickly and spread.

The adventitious roots become trunks and give the tree the strength to develop a large canopy of its own. The densely foliated crown of the golden fig shades out the crown of the host tree. Even if this did not kill the host, the weight of the mature banyan would. The banyan tree leaf is evergreen and oval-shaped. The leaves are arranged alternately on the tree’s stems.

F. aurea can easily reach a height and spread of 60-70 feet. Secondary roots will keep growing from the main branches of the tree to the ground causing it take over more and more real estate.

The shiny dark green leaves cast a welcome shade in a hot climate and the tree is amazingly easy to grow. It is drought tolerant and will take any amount of pruning. It makes a nice house plant and can even be trained into a banyan bonsai tree.

It is winter hardy outdoors in zones 10b and 11.

Banyan Trees in Florida

Ficus aurea is often called the Florida strangler fig in my home state as this variety is native to Florida and the Caribbean. A similar tree also native to Florida is Ficus citrifolia, the shortleaf fig.

The main difference between the two is that the leaves of F. aurea are more heavily veined.

The first banyan known to have been planted in the U.S. was planted by Thomas Edison at his home garden in Fort Meyers.  This garden is now part of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates which is open to the public.

The tree is believed to have been given to Edison as a gift from Harvey Firestone (founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.).

Growing a Banyan Tree
 in the Home Landscape

When planted in the open ground these massive trees must be carefully sited. You don’t want one anywhere near concrete or underground pipes.

Planting a strangler fig tree in your landscape means regular maintenance:

  • You will have to prune the adventitious roots to keep the tree in bounds.
  • Strangler figs also grow many large surface roots which make maintaining a lawn beneath them difficult. They can also lift a sidewalk of they should venture under it.
  • The fruit will leave a mess on the ground which, if left in place, can allow the tree to seed itself into the surrounding landscape.

Ficus tree bark is easily damaged by lawn maintenance equipment. 

The twigs look just like those of the common edible fig and the fruit look like miniature edible figs.

On the plus side, Strangler figs are tolerant of a variety of soils, resist insect pests, and are moderately tolerant of salt spray. You could literally plant one, water it a few times, and walk away. The strangler fig's trunk is also very showy which makes this tree a desirable landscape ornament to some gardeners.

It will grow into a beautiful specimen if properly maintained.

Largest Banyan Tree

Banyan Tree in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, USA
Banyan Tree in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
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The largest banyan tree in the world (or at least the widest) resides in the Indian Botanical Gardens near Kolkata, India. This tree’s age is estimated at 200-250 years. In 1925 it was struck by lightning and a portion of its middle had to be removed.

Because of this, it is not strictly categorized as a single tree anymore. This tree is a F. benghalensis.

The largest banyan tree in the United States is a popular tourist attraction in Lahaina, Maui’s Courthouse Square. It was planted on April 24, 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Protestant Mission in Lahaina.

The tree was 8 feet tall at that time. Today it is 60 feet tall and spreads over a city block. It looks more like a forest than one tree. When Tiny and I were there a few years ago, an arts and crafts fair was going on in its shade. This is in keeping with the tree’s historical use.

Banyan Tree History

The banyan is a tree which Hindu merchants used as a shady place to transact business. The word “banyan” literally means merchant.

Several Ficus species exhibit the strangling growth habit.

Ficus benghalensis, the national tree of India is considered to be sacred there. There is also Ficus rubiginosa, the Port Jackson Fig and Ficus microcarpa and Ficus nitida which are both commonly called Indian Laurel. Ficus religiosa is also a strangler Ficus.

All strangler figs are called banyans regardless of species.

Learn About Other Fabulous Ficus Trees:

Rubber Tree Plant

Fiddle Leaf Fig

Weeping Fig Tree Care

Grow a Banyan Bonsai

Return to Ficus Tree Care

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