Ask a local Singaporean about the Banyan Tree, and most would think of the indulgent spa resort of the same name rather than the mystery and importance to our country’s biodiversity that this amazing tree holds in its unique aerial or outlying roots.
For all the splendor that the Banyan Tree seems to project, its formation is in fact the result of strangulation of host tree by the Fig species of Hemiepiphyte (stranglers) planted in the crevices of the tree by animals who eat the fig flowers or fruits better known as syconium.
Upon germination, the fig species anchors itself to the canopy of the tree roughly 20-25 metres above the ground before literally branching out with its aerial roots that eventually anchor itself to the earth, competing with the host tree for nutrients and eventually strangling it to death. The formation of these roots creates the familiar unique interweaving pattern that is specific to each individual tree.
Its beauty aside, the Banyan Tree, for all its murderous intent, is considered (along with other Fig Trees) to be a keystone species that is essential to the survival of biodiversity and wildlife not just in Singapore, but across the globe as well. The syconium in particular is of great importance, as many animals from bats, birds and mammals depend on it for survival, especially during lean times in the forest.
Yet for all the benefits it provides, the cultivation of the Banyan Tree in Singapore is generally frowned upon due to superstitions as well as infrastructure reasons.
Malay folklores believe that Banyan Trees, with its drooping branches and dark shady crown, house the spirits of Pontianaks, who are known to swing from its aerial roots to terrorise villagers. While on a more practical level, carparks refrain from plnating the Banyan Tree (even though they provide an abundance of shade), as they claim that its numerous roots would cause frequent cracks in the ground, while the large number of flowers, fruits and subsequent animal droppings often lead to a dire need for a nearby carwash facility.
It is with these reasons that one would probably only be able to appreciate the natural wonders of a Banyan Tree in nature reserves or large scale parks in Singapore, where its tales of elegance, superstition and even murder in nature will always provide an interesting story to tell.