Banyan tree

The banyan tree, the old man of the forest, can get huge.

The coool tree

What’s cool and what’s not? I’m not talking about the air-conditioning/iced tea type of cool, but thinking more along the lines of what’s “cool, man”. I somehow rather think I’ve given the game away already – is using ‘man’ in a sentence without actually referring to the male of the species a bit old hat now? Somehow no longer cool?

I see plenty of people around that seem to be convinced that they are the coolest beings that ever walked the planet. Funny how many of them have exactly the opposite effect. Number one on the list, one that transcends all national boundaries, has got to be anyone, and I really do mean anyone, who chooses to wear sunglasses indoors. It just isn’t right – there really should be a law against it.

Modern teenagers make me giggle, too. Do they really think that jeans fourteen sizes too big with 6 inches of underwear showing at the back does anything for their street cred? Or do they feel that replacing their 110cc Honda Wave silencer and horn with a piece of drainpipe and computer game noise generator makes people turn around and say “Gosh, I wish I had a bike like his”?

If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I have been a victim of the quest to be cool myself. We all had to have the latest style of those canvas basketball boots with that daft rubber on the ankles, or the latest version of Dunlop Green Flash tennis shoes in my youth. They were ‘in’.

Perhaps my most ludicrous clothing choice ever was those frankly ridiculous trousers we all wore in the early seventies – Birmingham bags. These things were like two rather tall circus tents joined at the top, with four or five buttons vertically spaced in the waistband.

They weren’t even comfortable. Although you had enough space in each leg to house an army battalion, your nether regions were more, shall we say, constricted. As I have a rear end half the size of Belgium, as you can imagine not a single region of my lower torso was having much fun. But was I cool, as I walked down the street wearing what from a distance looked like a rather inelegant evening dress.

In fact, anything that your dad would steadfastly refuse to be associated with was probably cool. I doubt that the situation has changed today, come to think of it. We used to tease him mercilessly with the predictability of his shoes – he resolutely wore no other brand but Hush Puppies. “But they’re very comfortable”, he would always say. Not cool. Hang on… What am I wearing as I write this? Oh dear… I really am turning into my father.

I suppose as you get older you stop caring. I’m certainly past the point at which I give a flying frog about what I wear or how I’m viewed. Cool? Who cares. There’s a plant around that I reckon would have exactly the same attitude if it could speak. It just doesn’t care.

The banyan tree. (ni-khrot, or kraang in Thai) has got to be the old man of any garden. If this tree were human, it would be wearing slippers (Hush Puppies optional), smoking a pipe and whinging about the young people of today, and how life ‘isn’t like it used to be back in my day’.

The reason you’ll probably never quite get around to planting one in your garden is that to become in any way impressive it has to have been doing the business of growing for several generations. These things have somehow always been there. If you want to plant a tree that your grandchildren can enjoy when they’re complaining about the youth of their autumn years, then the banyan tree is absolutely perfect.

This incredible behemoth of a tree is more than a little unusual in the world of plants, in that it appears to grow down rather than up a lot of the time. Once a banyan tree has established itself and spread out a few branches in the usual upwards-and-sideways directions, it feels the need to spread elsewhere – downwards.

It sprouts numerous aerial roots from its branches, which dangle and reach down until they hit some kind of medium in which they can grow. At that point they burrow down and establish themselves as roots in the traditional sense, and grow underground. In time, these become thicker and thicker, and slowly become additional trunks for the same tree.

In old age a single tree may have the appearance of a small forest. They’re known technically as ‘accessory’ trunks, for those that care. The largest banyan tree known, found on the island of Sri Lanka, has 350 major trunks and several thousand smaller ones. As the tree ages further, the original trunk decays, and the tree often breaks up into several sections, the props becoming separate trunks for the various sections.  

The name of the tree originally comes from its ancestral home – India. It’s from a Hindu word for trader, because in many areas in that part of the world where banyans are found, traders and merchants use the tree’s shade while displaying their wares.

The banyan tree, also known as the East Indian Fig, has heart-shaped leaves about 15 centimeters long. The fruit, when it appears, is scarlet, not much bigger than a cherry, and grows in pairs from the axils of the leaves.

If you do decide to go for one of these in your back garden, then pick the location carefully. Over a long period of time, the tree will spread over a potentially huge area. It can grow up to around thirty meters in height, and many meters around the original trunk. The safest way to avoid this insidious invasion of your back garden is to grow the banyan tree indoors. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, as many people in even more temperate regions grow this in their living rooms as a relatively large bonsai tree.

Limiting its growth in a pot will restrain its tyrannical tendencies. They are quite content in pots, but like a grumpy old man, they’ll complain bitterly if they have to move. They’ll often show their displeasure by dropping their leaves, especially if they’re shifted from a spot with high light levels to a more shaded part of the house. It is quite content to be neglected for long periods, and won’t even complain in air-conditioning.

These plants benefit from regular pruning, and can actually be cut to whatever shape you want if the pruning is done on a regular basis. Like all fig trees, it will weep a milky sap when the branch is cut. This stuff is a bit nasty, so you should probably wear gloves.

A banyan tree in my back garden planted by my grandfather would be the perfect tree for me when I’m in my dotage. Difficult to imagine, but I could even be an even more grumpy old man by then. I wonder if Birmingham bags and Dunlop Green Flash shoes will have made a comeback...



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