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Banyan Trees: The Ancient “Walking” Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

They live for centuries, are enormous and wonderful in many odd ways.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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Banyan trees are ridiculous. They're massive, they live for centuries, and they kind of walk too. That's too much cool for one tree, right?

Image credit: saiko3p/Shutterstock.com

In the forest of the Indian Subcontinent, an extraordinary phenomenon is said to occur – trees “walk”.

Specifically, Banyan trees, which are sacred in Hinduism, expand their footprints by sending out roots that grow their own branches. These roots are flexible and can “crawl” in ways that allow them to reposition for optimal sunlight and nutrients, which makes it look like they have been walking.

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Due to this ability, these trees are recognized as the biggest in the world in terms of the area they can cover as individuals. If you look at a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), you will likely think you are looking at a whole forest, but you’re not. It is likely just one massive organism. In fact, the largest example, known as the Great Banyan, covers 14,500 square feet (1,347 square meters).

This enormous specimen is located at the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Botanical Garden, in Calcutta, and has an expansive canopy that is about the same size of a Manhattan city block.

How does this work, one tree is a forest?

Also known as the “strangler fig”, banyan trees grow from seeds that land on other trees and then send their roots down to smother them. Delightful little arboreal marvels. As the host tree dies, the banyan sends out its characteristic branch-supporting roots that look like other trees.

But while animal movement may be swift, these trees walk is unhurried. It navigates the forest floor at a pace that is largely imperceptible to humans, responding to their environment and adapting to the ecosystem. These trees can also grow to become really old, ranging between 250-500 years.

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Beyond its fascinating biological peripatetic activities, the tree is also symbolically significant too. In India, the tree is referred to as "the Vata-vriksha, and is associated with Yama, the god of death. As such, the tree is often grown near crematoriums in certain villages.

According to Hinduism, Krishna delivered his sermon of the sacred Bhagavad Gita while standing under a banyan tree. The Hindu cosmic “world tree” also depicts an upside-down banyan that has its roots in heaven and grows its roots towards Earth.

Through the centuries, the tree has had various other associations with life, fertility and resurrection, but when the British invaded India, they used these sacred trees to hang dissidents.

Ever since their independence, the Indian people have reclaimed this tree for themselves and it now their national tree.


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