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The Iconic, Exotic Banyans of Selby Gardens

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Just south of the historic Selby House are the iconic banyan trees, Ficus microcarpa, planted in 1939 by Grover Yancy, a beloved employee of Marie Selby until her death in 1971. In an interview, Grover remembered having to use a big wrecker to get them into the ground and marveled at how fast they grew. Grover continued as a member of the Selby Gardens staff until his retirement at the age of 76 in June of 1992, when the “Grover Yancy Banyan Grove” was dedicated.

For millennia, banyans have been used as shaded meeting places where people can converse or relax together, a tradition carried on daily by Selby visitors. In fact, “Banyan” is a Sanskrit word which refers both to the tree, and to a merchant, as outdoor marketplaces in India are commonly held…inside of a banyan tree. Their spectacular aerial roots grow downward turn woody once they touch the ground, creating partitions; almost rooms.

What makes a tree a banyan? It’s not a botanical term, more of a common name for a fig tree (meaning a tree in the genus Ficus,) which also produces areal roots. For some it’s a genetic thing: many ficus, like this Morton Bay Fig, don’t make arial roots. Other times, it’s an environmental thing; some species which act like banyans here in Florida or Hawaii may only be solitary trees in drier parts of the world, like California. There are two species of Ficus which are native to Florida, and both of them are banyans.

Now growing a banyan requires a lot of space! The Indian Banyan, Ficus bengalensis, can spread over several acres and should never be planted in a home landscape. They cause real structural damage to pipes, foundations, and road beds. If you already have an older banyan on your property, by all means take care of it, but this isn’t a shade tree to plant for the front yard. One of the largest banyan trees on record is in Kolkata, India. Its canopy covers nearly 4 acres and stands over 80 feet tall, with more than 2,000 roots.

In the rainforest, Ficus trees oftentimes host more flora and fauna than some entire ecosystems. They are a great host for epiphytes like orchids and bromeliads, and oftentimes begin life as epiphytes themselves. One of our native banyans is known locally as the “strangler fig.” Here at Selby Gardens we have over a dozen species of Ficus planted on our grounds. We hope next time you see a banyan tree, you’ll recognize it right away, and we hope to see you, in the Gardens.

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