The Life of a Banyan Tree from Asia to Sarasota, Florida

A mythical journey across the world…

Christa Thompson, exploring banyan trees photo by BKG

Christa Thompson, exploring banyan trees photo by BKG

I remember the first time I saw a banyan tree. Its wide trunk held these endless branches that seemed to grow right into the ground. My eyes were confused. I couldn’t tell where the tree started and where it began. It was everywhere! I bolted over to inspect this curious find. I had to get to the bottom of this…or the top, I still am not sure.

I was at A.L. Anderson Park in Tarpon Springs, Florida when I saw my very first banyan tree. I had been here a few times growing up and had never noticed it before. It seemed out of place, near the water all alone. At first I thought it must be an anomaly. Nevertheless, it was perfect for climbing.

My son horsing around a banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

My son horsing around a banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

It was about 6 months later when I spotted my second banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida. I was smitten that there was another tree, even bigger and more intricate than the first one I had seen. Then another, and another… They were everywhere in Sarasota. How is it that I had spent 16 years in Florida and had never known about these?

banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

Soon after I moved to Sarasota and began to see banyan trees everywhere. They started to become a part of my daily life. Pretty soon I was sitting beneath them to write, my son climbing them and running between their confusing labyrinthine branches, or trunks, or whatever they are…I still can’t tell. The banyan trees were so curious, so extraordinary, that finally one day I had to know more, and so I began to research the life of a banyan tree.

The banyan tree is most commonly found in India and Bangladesh where it is considered sacred in both places. Naturally this would be the case as I am almost always most attracted to places and things related to legend, myth and lore. I don’t know why this is but these sort of things just stand out to me…and so I read on.

The tree begins life as an epiphyte on a host tree, gathering its nourishment and water from the air. As it grows, its lateral branches send down supporting roots that become absorbing roots when they reach the ground. Eventually, the host tree is smothered as the banyan continues to send out more branches and roots. The mature Banyan’s canopy may cover an area more than 1,000 feet in diameter. The stems below the canopy form a kind of columned room. – Banyantree.org

banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

So where did this thing come from? Like most things in Florida, someone brought it here… That someone was good old Thomas Edison who planted the very first banyan tree in the Continental U.S. right in Fort Myers, Florida in the late 1800′s. That’s right, just an hour south of Sarasota, Florida (light bulb turns on, pun intended).

My son can't get enough of this banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

My son can’t get enough of this banyan tree in Sarasota, Florida photo by Christa Thompson 2013

This banyan tree, a gift to Mr. Edison from Harvey Firestone which once stood just 4 feet tall, now covers a colossal acre of land on the Seminole Lodge Estate (the former Florida retreat for Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Edison currently operated as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates). Pretty cool when you think about it, and that’s just a small part of the life of a banyan tree.

In Hinduism it is believed that the resting place for the god of Krishna is on the leaf of a banyan tree.

by krishnapath.org

by krishnapath.org

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.” -Krishna, in the Bhagavat Gita

Wikipedia notes: The banyan tree is also considered sacred and is called:

“Vat Vriksha” in Sanskrit, in Telugu known as: ‘మర్రి వృక్షము ‘ ; Marri Vrikshamu and in Tamil known as: ‘ஆல மரம்’ ; 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.

Well Wishing Festival in Hong Kong by discover Hong Kong

Well Wishing Festival in Hong Kong by discover Hong Kong

The Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are banyan and a popular shrine in Hong Kong near the Tin Hau Temple. These sacred trees attract thousands of people to make their wishes by tossing paper into the trees. The higher the paper lands, the more likely it is for the wish to be for filled. (source discoverhongkong.com)

In Philippine Mythology, the banyan is thought of as home to a host of spirits and demonic creatures.

Duende (elves), kapre (forest monster) tikbalang (half-man half-horse creature), manananggal (monster witch)….the list goes on, Philippine mythology is often a goldmine of fantasy and horror creatures. -365 Great Pinoy Stuff

Filipino children are taught to never point at a mature banyan to avoid pissing off any spirits. Instead they are to whisper words of respect to the spirits to avoid harm, illness, suffering and death. (source Wikipedia)

Tikbalang by 365greatpinoystuff

Tikbalang by 365greatpinoystuff

In Guam, Chamorro people believe and tell legends of Taotaomona (prehistoric peoples), Duendes (fairies, goblins) and other spirits of the ancient Chamorro that are thought to be guardians of banyan trees. (source Wikipedia)

All in all, my research turned out to be quite for filling. My attraction to these mysterious earthbound wonders led me far from this tangible planet on a journey through thousands of years of mythology. I never would have imagined that my curiosity of a tree 10 minutes from my home would have taken me around the world. The life of a banyan tree is far more complex than just this very superficial blog post. It is an interesting wonder that I will continue to investigate with time.

As always your suggestions, experience and questions are thoroughly enjoyed in the comments below. Happy fairytlale travels!

 by Herb Kawainui Kane

by Herb Kawainui Kane


About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Senior Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. Christa has been traveling the world since 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

19 Comments on this post

  1. So freaking awesome!!

    Joseph Pinto / Reply
  2. Its a beautiful article dear it is full of information
    thank you very much dear loved it very much

    Nice reading about you

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Be in touch. Browse through the category sections, I feel you may find something of your interest.

    Ajaytao2010 / Reply
  3. Fantastic article and photos, Christa.

    Scott Malthouse / Reply
  4. Great post. I have so many childhood memories of climbing banyan trees – I always thought if I could get to the top (I never did) there must be something magical there that you couldn’t see from the ground! Jx

    Jade / Reply
  5. What a fantastic tree! This is a really outstanding post, brilliant work!

    ztevetevans / Reply

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