Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Chinese banyan tree, like the fig tree, is a member of the mulberry family. It is widely planted along roads and in public gardens in many parts of the world including the Maltese islands.

It has many other names mostly associating the tree with a country or geographic area where it is indigenous. Amongst them one finds Malayan banyan, Taiwan banyan and Indian laurel. The tree is also indigenous in Sri Lanka, India, Australia and New Zealand among others.

It does not seem to have a Maltese name but I have heard it referred to as siฤกra tat-toroq.
The Chinese banyan grows to a large size and provides much needed shade during the summer. In many localities old trees are used throughout the year as roosting sites by sparrows. For several months of the year the branches are shared with roosting starlings, white wagtails and other wintering birds.

When the trees become very large they sometimes become the cause of complaint as their roots damage pavements, drains and even buildings and they are then relocated.  On the other hand the trees are sometimes heavily pruned and this too results in protests by tree lovers.

Like other fig tree species the banyan requires the presence of a symbiotic fig wasp to be fertilised and produce seeds. If the wasp is not present no seeds are produced. Sometimes it took decades for the wasp to arrive.

Many species of birds love the seeds of the Chinese banyan and are responsible for transporting them far and wide sometimes to the most unusual of places including walls where they can cause structural damage. 

Sometimes the banyan grows as an epiphyte, that is, it grows on other trees. When this happens the trees puts down roots that eventually reach the ground. As the banyan grows larger it strangles the host tree and eventually kills it.

In the Maltese islands the wasp required to pollinate the Chinese banyan arrived several years ago probably from Sicily where it is now also present. As a result of this banyans can be seen growing on their own in both in natural as well as in built up areas. 

Small trees can be seen growing out of walls in many towns and villages and unless they are removed in a few years’ time they will be causing a lot of damage to the structures on which they are growing. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 21 August 2014. 

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