A banyan tree, native to India and part of the mulberry family, is an enormous tree with many uses and a vast history. Young plants put forth roots, which form secondary trunks to support the expansive limbs. These trunks send out more roots until they crowd out the host tree.
The leaves of the banyan tree are large, leathery, and used as animal fodder. The tree produces figs which are popular with birds and monkeys, and also produces flowers that attract wasps for pollination. Older trees can reach more than 200 meters (656 feet) in diameter, with a height of 30 meters (98 feet).
While native to India, banyan trees exist throughout South Asia. They are frequently planted near homes, temples, villages, and roadsides. In most villages, this type of tree provides a meeting place for the community. People gather in its shade to relax, discuss issues, and make decisions. In fact, the name banyan is derived from merchants called Banias, who rested under the trees to discuss their strategies. Alexander the Great is also said to have camped under a banyan tree that was large enough to shelter his army of 7,000 men.
Banyan trees have a variety of uses. They produce a special type of rubber, and their sticky milk is used in gardening. In the Nepal region, the milky sap is used for polishing copper and brass.
The wood and bark of the banyan tree are suitable for making paper, and the roots are often used to make ropes to secure wood bundles. The women in Nepal crush the tree's roots with a paste to create a hair and skin conditioner. This tree is also used to produce shellac, which is widely used as an adhesive and surface-finisher in the industrial world.
The banyan tree is also used for medicinal purposes. The sap treats external skin inflammations and bruising. The bark and seeds are used as a tonic to cool the body, as well as to treat patients with diabetes. The roots and sap are used to treat skin ulcers, dysentery, and toothaches. Twigs of the banyan tree are sold as toothpicks in India and Pakistan to promote dental health.
The banyan tree, considered sacred and representative of eternal life, is also a human symbol. In contemporary India, it is the national tree. Its linked roots and branches are sometimes used to symbolize the country's unity.