My dad grew up in Florida, so I saw my first banyans when we headed south to visit his family. I thought they were just wonderful. Of course, as a child, it was the possibilities for play that were most enticing, but as I got older, I thought them wonderful just for their strangeness.
By the time I reached Australia, I knew to expect banyans. I had seen several in parks and gardens that had been identified as having been transplanted from Queensland. These trees are water hogs, so one only finds them in areas with abundant rain, and a good bit of the Queensland coastline accommodates that requirement.
Banyans are ficus trees. The thing that gives the tree its remarkable shape is its aerial roots. These roots drop from the tree’s branches. When they reach the soil, they thicken into additional trunks, which support the massive, spreading branches from which they dropped. In time, one tree ends up looking like a thicket rather than a single tree.
The banyan can reach a height of 100 feet, but it can keep spreading outward as long as nothing stops it. Some older banyans cover several acres. Often, in India, merchants would set up shop in the shade of these spreading trees—which is how the tree got its English name. When trading in India, the Portuguese picked up the Gujarati word for merchant, and used it when speaking of Hindu merchants. From Portuguese, the word banyan passed into English as early as 1599 with the same meaning. By 1634, reports of traders doing business in India were filled with references to banyan trees, trees under which banyans, or Hindu merchants, would conduct their business. In time, banyan came to mean the tree itself.