This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Edison Banyan (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 2
Published October 1, 2022
Doug Still - pre-intro: 0:00
Today is Saturday, October 1, 2022. Four days ago, a category four hurricane named Ian made nearly direct landfall on Fort Myers, Florida. It was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the state, and it caused major devastation and some loss of life. This episode of this old tree was scheduled to drop that same day and our subject, the Edison Banyan Tree, is in Fort Myers. Obviously, I couldn't release the episode without knowing the fate of the banyan or knowing if our friends that care for it at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates are okay. Well, I can report that the famous banyan tree did survive with only some broken branches, that the buildings at the museum are all intact and in good condition, and everyone is fine. I'm so happy to hear this news, and I thought you listeners would want to know too. To the people of Fort Myers and southern Florida in general, we wish you a speedy recovery as you rebuild. You are in our thoughts. So without further ado, here's our original episode in its entirety.
Doug Still - intro
Was there ever a time in your life when others defined you in a certain way, but deep down you knew you were something else? Something much more? Maybe you were new, maybe you were different. They picked a lane for you, and you were passed by. This could describe the Edison Banyan Tree as it began its life in Fort Myers, Florida in the 1920s. It was an unassuming sapling from India planted by Thomas Edison at his winter estate, one of thousands of plants he experimented with there. But soon its genetic potential busted loose and its inner fabulousness could not be contained. It is now an enormous beloved fig tree. Yep, it's a type of fig. And this "not so gentle giant" is the main attraction at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates historic site. Why did Edison plant the banyan tree? I'll be speaking to Debbie Hughes, the Horticultural Director to find out. Looking back to India, what are its myths and what's its true nature? What's its place in the history of civilization? Guest Mike Shanahan will explain. He's a rainforest ecologist, blogger and author of the wonderful 2016 book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees. Join me as I discover the story of the Edison Banyan Tree. I'm Doug Still, and welcome to This Old Tree.
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 2:34
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. Wonder what you'd say to me.....
Doug Still: 2:46
When walking between the parking lot and the outbuildings at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, visitors can't help but notice a shady stand of trees that seems inviting. But it's not a stand at all. It's a single tree - our Edison Banyan. It covers an entire acre, a series of interconnected branches supported by hundreds of aerial roots that have formed into trunks in their own right after reaching the ground long ago. There are many banyan trees in southern Florida growing in a variety of places, but this is the biggest, and one of the first. I had the pleasure of talking with Debbie Hughes, the longtime Horticultural Director at Edison Ford, about the history of this tree and what people love about it. Debbie, welcome to the show!
Debbie Hughes: 3:32
Well, thank you, Douglas. I am so excited to talk about trees.
Doug Still: 3:38
I was wondering if you could just describe where you work and what are the Edison & Ford Winter Estates?
Debbie Hughes: 3:44
Well, it's in a historical neighborhood. Of course, Fort Myers was a small little community about 300 people when Edison moved here for the winter. His doctor told him that he needed to get out of the cold in New Jersey where his lab was, so he ended up coming here throughout his older years and Mina his wife was 20 years younger than him so she lived longer and donated the property of 20 acres to the City of Fort Myers. So because of that, we have this wonderful property, with his old homes and gardens that he experimented with here, and he had a lab and we now have the museum. It's a wonderful place to visit.
Doug Still: 4:29
And Henry Ford was next door.
Debbie Hughes: 4:30
Yeah, Henry Ford came - he was his friend. Basically, Henry Ford worked for Edison at one of his companies, and they met at a conference. And Henry Ford said to Thomas that he was developing this new car - it was called the quadricycle. It was basically a bicycle. So Edison, as always, would say something to him like, "What are you waiting for? Get to work," because that's the way Edison would think. And so, Ford became really good friends with them. He bought a house next door. And when he bought the house next door, they would travel together, going camping, and they loved to be together. I mean, they were basically, Edison was like a father.
Doug Still: 5:15
Well, this tree was brought to my attention by a friend whose family is from the Fort Myers area. Yeah, it was like, wow, you've got to see this tree. I haven't been there, but I saw pictures, and it's spectacular. I was wondering if you could create a picture for our listeners, sort of in our mind's eye, of what the tree looks like, how it fits into the surroundings, and what it feels like to stand next to it, or better yet, underneath it.
Debbie Hughes: 5:45
Yeah, it's why people come to visit, honestly. People will just drive up, you don't even have to pay to see it, you drive up. It's off this historical neighborhood, a very amazing street called McGregor Boulevard. The Boulevard is amazing to begin with. It's all palms lining the street, and when they turn into the parking lot, they literally - their jaw drops. Because the tree is - it's more than a tree. It's an event. I have seen a lot of trees in my life. I just came back from the Portland and Seattle area, and you know how their trees are amazing, too. They have redwoods and cedars and pines that are large, I mean, we're talking really large, to the point where you can't really see how far up they go. Looks up into the sky, completely. This tree is totally different. This tree - imagine one central trunk, and you couldn't even wrap your arms around the central trunk, you'd have to have three or four people to wrap your arms around the central trunk. But that's not all of it. Once you get past that - the tree just keeps walking. So imagine you have a central trunk, and then you got arms and the arms are so long that they've dropped down aerial roots. And after they dropped down the aerial roots, it takes, I don't know, five years for those aerial - they're like strings, they become a trunk themselves, where you can barely wrap your arms around them. And it just keeps doing this all around one acre. So it's a big circular tree…
Doug Still: 7:29
I love that phrase that the tree's walking.
Debbie Hughes: 7:33
It's 393 inches in circumference. So if you took a measuring tape and surrounded the whole, I guess you would say all the trunks because there's, there's quite a few, I would say there's about 50 trunks. [Amazing] That's 393 feet. And then the tree is 74 feet tall, which is not extreme, right? But it's a lot wider, it's a lot wider than it is tall. So when you think about it, it's not immense because it's tall, like a Sequoia or redwood would be, it is immense because it just keeps going, and it just keeps walking. And to me, that's what makes it so much fun.
Doug Still: 8:19
What's it like to walk underneath it, or through it?
Debbie Hughes: 8:22
Well, it's difficult because the trunks are like elephant feet. So each trunk that attaches to these branches. You kind of get wrapped up in them, you could trip really easily. So you have to be careful where you're walking. Of course, it's 10 degrees cooler. Say, for instance it's 95 here today, if you're underneath that banyan tree, it's 80's and you feel like you're cool compared to the rest, if you're in the sun. And it's so shaded, it's like a home. You can literally live under there. The only thing that's really hard, Doug, is the fruit. It's nasty. It's not edible to humans. I'm sure there are some animals that do eat it. It's Ficus benghalensis. It's from India. We don't have probably the animals that would eat it, not even I don't even notice the birds eating it. But I do notice that it stinks and it makes a mess. But if that's all we have to put up with, that's not too bad. If you stood still long enough, it could grow around you and it would pick you up. I do notice people have done tricks like that in other places and the aerial roots will attach to bicycles. It will attach to furniture, whatever.
Doug Still: 9:48
So let's get to that origin story. [Yeah] Why was the tree planted and what was going on?
Debbie Hughes: 9:55
The tree was planted simply because he was doing rubber research. So he thought we need to have a rubber source - during World War I they had a shortage. So he figured, let's come up with a source that we can grow all over the United States, and we could make sure we don't have that shortage.
Doug Still: 10:16
And that might have also been from the influence of Henry Ford.
Debbie Hughes: 10:21
Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, with the tires. They had an arrangement, it was called the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory. And they tested 17,000 plants. Plants were sent from all over the world. And there was like an urban legend that Harvey Firestone brought a little tree, a banyan tree from India. It's since been proven wrong. So he thought this tree has that white latex in it, so you could slash the tree trunk, and you'd get this white latex substance out - which it's actually a rubber - but Edison, you know, the way he was, he was an inventor, not just in mechanical things. He believed in doing inventions with practical plant material, too. So he tested all these plants, he came up with goldenrod. And you know why he came up with goldenrod? When he ground the goldenrod plants, 12% of it was rubber latex. So any part of the world here in the United States could grow goldenrod, right? I mean, it's a native wildflower or weed, some people say. Every part of the country. And he was basically thinking you could grow it just like you grow cotton or corn or anything else. But the banyan tree was his first, second, third choice maybe. But then again, he realized it couldn't grow in any other part except for South Florida.
Doug Still: 11:47
So this was one plant among 17,000. Did you say?
Debbie Hughes: 11:52
Yeah, they started from everywhere. And they had a research garden here in South Florida and a research garden up in New York. And then New Jersey, both. Yes.
Doug Still: 12:01
So they were hoping that this tree would have a utilitarian purpose and become a workhorse.
Debbie Hughes: 12:07
Right, and they continue to do this research, even after he passed away in 1931. And they closed it down, I think around 1938, because they came up with synthetic rubber.
Doug Still: 12:18
So what was planted around it? Was it in a row of other types of trees?
Debbie Hughes: 12:24
It was in a row, like you had an orchard, but the banyan was unique. I don't know why he put the banyan where he put it. He must have known. It's almost like he went in the future and came back. [Doug laughs] It's got to go here, you know, because where he put it is the place where everything happens.
Doug Still: 12:44
Right, it was in the center of it all, [the center of it all] and it took over.
Debbie Hughes: 12:49
Yes, we have pictures of just this little teeny seedling about four feet tall. And now when you see it, you cannot believe it's the same tree.
Doug Still: 12:58
We're going to come back to Debbie, but all this had me thinking I need to learn more about banyan trees. As I mentioned before, the banyan is a type of fig tree, which led me to Mike Shanahan's wonderful book about the critical role of fig species in tropical climates worldwide. We're very lucky that he agreed to come on the show. Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer and editor, with a doctorate in rainforest ecology from the University of Leeds. He writes a blog called “Under the Banyan, Stories About Us and Nature,” which focuses on climate change and biodiversity loss. But he's most well known for his research and writing about fig tree species worldwide, and in 2016, he wrote a book called Gods Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees. This focused on the many ways that fig trees have shaped human evolution and civilization, both physically and through the imagination and through myth. So Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike Shanahan: 14:06
Thanks for having me, Doug. I'm looking forward to talking to you.
Doug Still: 14:09
So, how did you come to study fig trees and how did they capture your imagination?
Mike Shanahan: 14:15
I started on this journey in 1996 when I was doing a master's project at the University of Leeds, and I went to Borneo for about a month where I was working in a national park there. And the National Park I was in had about 80 different species of fig trees and huge variety within those 80 species. And my project was looking at how different fig trees use different tactics to attract their seed dispersing animals. So, in terms of how they produce their figs, where they produce them, what color they are, whether they smell or they don't smell, and I was looking at how different types of animals eat different types of figs.
Doug Still: 15:00
So I was impressed by how many different fig species there are. Ficus is the genus, what are the types of fig trees that everyone knows.
Mike Shanahan: 15:11
So everyone's probably familiar with Ficus carica, which is the so called edible fig. This is the one that originated in the sort of Mediterranean area and has now been planted as a domestic crop in about 70 countries. And within that species alone, you have, you know, many, many hundreds of varieties that farmers have developed over thousands of years. So that's the common one that everyone is familiar with. Some of the fig trees are like that, they're a typical tree, you know, a straight trunk and some branches and some leaves. Many others do different things. So you have some that are just shrubs that are very low lying, you have some that are creepers that climb up onto other trees to grow. And then you have the strangler figs, which are some of the most famous ones, which often start out in life high up on another tree where their seed is deposited, and then they send their roots downwards to reach the earth and create a stable scaffold.
Doug Still: 16:08
What's the species that's the common house plant?
Mike Shanahan: 16:13
So that's probably Ficus benjamina. That's the so called weeping fig, which in your house, maybe a couple of feet tall, but in the rainforest, it can be 30 meters, with a million figs on it and feeding 30 or more species of birds and mammals. That is a kind of strangler fig in the wild but it can also grow up from the ground. And then I think a few more species that you find in households these days include Ficus elastica, which is the Indian rubber tree, and Ficus lyrata, the fiddleleaf fig, which is an increasingly popular houseplant.
Doug Still: 16:50
When you were in Borneo you studied Ficus aurantiaca. Did I pronounce that correctly?
Mike Shanahan: 16:56
Yes, more or less, yeah. [Doug laughs]
Doug Still: 16:59
Could you describe it and maybe your first experience when you saw it?
Mike Shanahan: 17:05
So this is a species that is of a type called root climbers, and they start out in life on the forest floor where a seed germinates, and then they grow up a big tree. They develop a very stout stem that grows upwards and from that grow from some very small leaves, about the size of a thumbnail. And as the fig grows upwards, it produces its figs which can be about the size of a tennis ball, big red orange figs. And when you have fixed that big, you need a big animal to eat them and they're particularly favored by monkeys. This is a species I encountered a few times in the rainforest. But one time I was up a tree, I had gone looking for these figs, and I saw some from a distance and luckily there was a tree nearby that had a ladder attached all the way up to it up the top because some other researchers have been studying that tree for other reasons. And so I climbed this ladder. When I say a ladder is actually a series of ladders one on top of the other going up very high. Foolishly, I hadn't taken my safety harness and I wasn't clipped in, I didn't follow the protocol and I just was desperate to get hold of these figs. So I climbed and climbed and climbed. As I went up, I encountered a snake up the tree as well, so I had to reach past the venomous snake to get the figs I wanted.
Doug Still: 18:37
That’s very "Garden of Eden."
Mike Shanahan: 18:39
[Laughs] Yeah, there was a lot of temptation going on. But the figs themselves, they are quite large and I had to sort of stuffed them inside the clothes I was wearing so I could get them back down to safety.
Doug Still: 18:53
Well, in your book you write so beautifully and bring us there, you know in the reader's mind, and I just want to read a passage from when you're in the forest, because it's so good. "Each time I stepped into that forest, I encountered another world. It was hot and humid and full of mosquitoes. The forest's palette of greens and browns flooded my vision. Countless trees crowded in on me, vines crept and corkscrewed their way skywards at every possible angle. Some were as thick as a thigh. Strange sounds tricked my ears, strange shapes moved then vanished. There were musty scents whose sources I never found. Most of the trees were just a few centimeters thick, but were so numerous I could only take a couple of steps off a trail before hitting one. Others were giants as broad as a small car and none was as spookily beautiful as the first free standing strangler fig I saw there. Its host tree had long since died and rotted away, and the stranglers roots now formed a scaffold with a hollow core. I stepped inside and looked up. shafts of light shone down at me from far above. This Ficus kerkhovenii became my favorite landmark in the forest.
Mike Shanahan: 20:14
Yeah, because it's just such an amazing thing to come across in the forest when you're wandering around this landscape of trees, trees, trees and trees and then suddenly you come across this thing that looks like molten wax that is frozen in shape and is unlike anything else. It being one of the strangler figs, it was one that was particularly attractive to lots of different types of wildlife. So it was a great one to go and watch at dawn when the animals come to feed. But as I mentioned in that extract that you read it was also a landmark and in the forest it's great when you're wandering around a forest to have these things that you spot every now and again that remind you of where you are and and how to get home again.
Doug Still: 20:57
Could you describe the strangler fig in more detail just...could you describe the processes that are happening from germination to it becoming a full grown tree?
Mike Shanahan: 21:09
Okay, so most of these strangler figs are dispersed either by fruit bats or by birds or monkeys, or various other animals that are in the forest and they live in the canopy. So when they poop, they poop out their seeds quite high up. And if one of these seeds happens to fall in the right place, which is the crotch of a tree where the branch joins the trunk, it will germinate there and start to send down some roots. These are called aerial roots. So the tiny fig seedling is way up in the canopy, it's got a couple of leaves to start with, and these roots start descending downwards and they hug the host tree and head on downwards towards the ground. Once they tap into the soil down below, then the tree can start to do two things. It starts to expand above where it can produce many more leaves to capture the sunlight. But it also starts to produce many more of these aerial roots which can fuse with each other, they can split, they can form a basket work. So they form a structure that's very stable so that even if the host tree does die, the strangler fig can then become freestanding in many cases.
Doug Still: 22:23
So it doesn't necessarily, in a tropical forest situation, it can't really survive by germinate - or most can't survive - by germinating in the soil because there's a closed canopy. So it has evolved to germinate up in the canopy.
Mike Shanahan: 22:41
Yes, beating the system really. Many of the strangler figs can, in fact, germinate on the ground, they don't have to be on a host tree but in a rainforest on the ground is not a great place to be because there's so much competition and there's so little light. So the strangler figs really have reached this deal with the seed dispersing animals and they pay them with thick flesh and then return they get the seed dispersal service. So they can very quickly get the benefits of the light from the canopy. And because of their rapid growing roots, they then get the benefits of the soil as well, so they get the best of both worlds.
Doug Still: 23:21
We're gonna come back to the banyan, but is the banyan a strangler fig?
Mike Shanahan: 23:26
Yes, it is, it's one of the strangler figs and perhaps the most impressive.
Doug Still: 23:31
I was fascinated by the relationship between the fig wasp and fig trees in general. And that there's one? There are many different types of fig wasps, maybe as many as there are fig tree species. Could you describe the relationship?
Mike Shanahan: 23:51
Yeah, so it all hinges on the fig really. People think a fig is a fruit, but it's not really. It's like a hollow ball lined with flowers. And those flowers don't really see the light of day. They're pollinated only by fig wasps, which are tiny little insects a couple of millimeters long. The figs can only breed inside those. So the fig wasps can only breed inside the figs of their partner species. And in most cases, each fig species has one or maybe two fig wasp species that do this service of pollination for it. The female fig wasp will be flying around and she's carrying eggs inside her and she's got pollen on her from the fig in which she was born. She has to find the right kind of fig of the right species at the right stage of development. And when she does so, she forces her way into that fig through a tiny little hole at the end of the fig. As she does her wings will be torn from her body, her antennae will be ripped off, and then she'll make her way into the hollow part of the fig which will be completely in darkness. And in there, she will wander around on top of the, on the surface of the flowers that are in there. She'll be pollinating those flowers and laying her eggs in some of them.
Doug Still: 25:10
I'd like to switch to India now because our banyan is from India. And first I'd like to talk about Ficus religiosa, and the mythology behind that tree, the origins of Indian culture and early people in India, specifically, I guess, in the Indus Valley. Why was the tree important, and why did it become such an important part of a culture?
Mike Shanahan: 25:36
Well, Ficus religiosa is another one of these strangler figs. And generally these stranglers tend to be very large trees, they tend to be very impressive to look at because of their, the way they form and their aerial roots that just look so eerie and strange. But also, they're very important for the ecosystems in which you find them because they feed so many animals and those animals disperse the seeds of many other plant species. So they're ecologically important and early humans wherever they have encountered strangler figs have put them into their mythologies and stories and have created taboos against cutting down fig trees, which you find in Africa and Asia and the Pacific and many other places. So Ficus religiosa, in particular, has a bit of this documented in the way that others don't. So the tree appears in ceramic seals that were made by the people in the Indus Valley about three and a half thousand years ago. They depict what looks like a god or goddess figure within a tree and somebody appearing to make some sort of offerings for it, suggesting that this tree had religious value all the way back then. And since then, Ficus religiosa, you know, has had many important roles in other cultures that have come after the Indus Valley people lived, including in Hinduism and Buddhism. The tree that the Buddha sat beneath, as he attained enlightenment was a strangler fig of the species Ficus religiosa. It is important for many, many less well known religions and local ethnic groups across India. And in many cases, people will use this tree as a place of prayer, a place to particularly pray for things related to fertility and longevity and a peaceful long life.
Doug Still: 27:47
And even just a meeting place. I mean, under the shade of this enormous tree, it's, you know, of value.
Mike Shanahan: 27:55
Exactly. These trees, the banyan in particular has been used as a shade tree for thousands of years. It was planted along roads to give shelter to people traveling between towns thousands of years ago. It is a tree around which settlements have sprung up. Many villages have got a banyan at their center where the local governance takes place, local village council takes place under the banyan tree, and the Bombay Stock Exchange was founded underneath a banyan tree in the city now called Mumbai. So across India and other parts of South Asia, banyan trees and other kinds of strangler figs have often been center points of culture, of commerce, of conversation. You know, these things are part of the structure of life.
Doug Still: 28:45
And as you state the fig tree around the world is part of the creation myth of almost every major religion and other religions. I'd like to read this one passage that you wrote about, having to do with Buddha, and setting the scene, the young Prince Siddhartha Gautama was on a six year journey to find enlightenment, and he ended up under a Ficus religiosa. And you write, "The tree belonged to a species scientists today called Ficus religiosa, the sacred fig. The species grows up to 30 meters tall and has smooth gray bark and small red figs. Its hand-sized, heart-shaped leaves are shiny and stiff, with long pointed tips and long, slender stalks. When the wind blows, the leaves tap against each other and create a sound like the wing beats of thousands of tiny birds. This fluttering filled Gautama's ears as he tried to fathom the meaning of the universe." I just thought that was so descriptive, and I love how you brought that sound in, of that scene and that myth.
Mike Shanahan: 29:57
Thanks, I'm glad you like that. I find it fun fascinating the idea of someone sitting for a long time under a tree to meditate. But closing your eyes and sitting under a tree and just absorbing the soundscape is a fun thing to do.
Doug Still: 30:10
And I love the thought of those heavy, sort of waxy leaves. I could hear that and picture that. What are the Hindu myths surrounding the banyan tree?
Mike Shanahan: 30:22
The Banyan features in a great many myths. And there are so many invites. One of the famous ones is that there's the idea of a cosmic world tree which is a banyan that is sort of upside down with its roots in the heavens and the branches descending down to earth and bringing gifts to humanity from the celestial realm. And that's a story that's been around for about two and a half thousand years. It puts the Banyan right into the center of Hinduism alongside other fif trees. Another one is about the idea that the universe totally dissolves itself every, you know, periodically and then is reborn. So just in the idea that you have reincarnation in Hinduism, the idea also applies to the universe as a whole that it's periodically, a dissolution happens and then it's reborn. And one of the stories says that the God Vishnu is there in this time floating through the cosmos in the form of a baby resting on a banyan leaf. And it's Vishnu who sort of inhales the whole of the universe and then breathes it out again for its rebirth. There are many stories about other banyan trees, there are some that have grown up to be very, very large, these things are truly huge. So…
Doug Still: 32:00
This one's the largest of them all, right?
Mike Shanahan: 32:02
Yeah. So one of them there's a story about a saint called Kabir who was apparently brushing his teeth with a bit of twig 550 years ago or so and he threw the twig away after he'd finished and immediately up sprang a huge banyan tree as big as a forest covering about a hectare of land. And this tree, you can go to it now you can go to it today. It's in Gujarat. It's called Kabirvad, and it was on a silty island in the Narmada River. Now, when a British writer was there in the year 1794, he describes this thing as having about 350 trunks the size of an English oak tree and another 3000 smaller trunks. And the idea that a tree can have more than one trunk is alien, of course to many people. But what the banyan does as it grows, its branches grow out from the main trunk of the tree. And as they grow, they send down more of these aerial roots that are the strangler fig specialities. And as these roots which are like hair, they're kind of like brown matted hair, as they reach down to the ground, they thicken and they become pillars that hold up those big branches, allowing them to grow even further out, and send yet more of these pillar roots down. So from a distance, you can see what looks like a small forest but it's actually just a single tree.
Doug Still: 33:34
One tree [Yeah], and entire towns, or villages sort of sprung up beneath a banyan tree.
Mike Shanahan: 33:44
Exactly. Yes, there's a city in India called Vadodara, which means in the heart of the banyan tree. And that's how it grew up around one of these huge trees or several of them. And if you go there today, you'll find there are many banyan trees there. But this Kabirvad, which is in Gujarat, some people think it may be the same tree that was described by some of Alexander the Great's companions when he reached India in the year 326 BCE. So, you know, a couple of thousand years ago.
Doug Still: 34:20
They knew the fig that they had been eating back in Greece and Macedonia. But then they discovered this banyan tree.
Mike Shanahan: 34:30
Yes, and they even described it as being like a fig even though the tree itself looks completely different. They had looked inside the figs and they had made that connection thousands of years ago, they sent these descriptions back to, you know, back to Europe, and the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who's considered to be the sort of father of botany, he wrote up his descriptions of the, you know, the very first descriptions of Ficus in a scientific sense. He named three species. It was the Ficus carica, the edible one, this banyan from India which looks totally different, and a third species, Ficus sycomorus, which you find in Egypt and other parts of Africa as well. So he joined the dots and named three species. But today, we know that there are more than 800 of the Ficus species.
Doug Still: 35:24
They were just stunned when they saw this tree for the first time.
Mike Shanahan: 35:28
They must have been one of the people in Alexander's party, said that 7000 men could stand beneath this one tree. [Incredible] for a long time, this was treated as you know, hyperbole. And it's, you know, travelers tales from an exotic land clearly they've been exaggerated. But it's true, you can get many more than that, actually. There's another tree and other banyan in Southern India that 20,000 people can stand beneath. So, that was maybe a small one.
Doug Still: 35:59
That's incredible. You've suggested that awe is something that humans have evolved to feel, and that it's an evolutionary advantage. And fig trees are intricately tied to the development of culture worldwide, and then you sort of tie these together. Could you talk about that a little bit more?
Mike Shanahan: 36:22
Yes, I mean, awe is something that I've experienced in rain forests a couple of times, and when you experience something like that, it really does take your breath away. And it changes you in many ways. And of course, the strangler figs, for me are the quintessential aspect of the rainforest that transmits that feeling. Because when you walk through a forest, and you come across these things, they do blow your mind. They're they're so big, they're so dominant, and, you know, if you spend any time trying to understand them as well, then you understand how important they are.
Doug Still: 37:01
Yeah, you write that, speaking of figs, their power and fertility demand the attention and respect of every human eye that sees them. So what would you say, I mean, you obviously have a great love for fig trees, including the banyan, what meaning do you derive from it? What meaning does it have for you?
Mike Shanahan: 37:22
Well, studying ecology and fig trees in particular, is a constant reminder that everything is connected and understanding that and appreciating that I think is what studying figs has really given to me. [music]
Doug Still: 37:38
Whoa, we've come a long way and understanding the special lineage of the little tree planted by Edison for latex in 1926 in Fort Myers. But like the tree grown from the toothpick of the poet Kabir on an island in the Narmada River back in the 15th century, and many other banyans through time, the Edison Banyan has grown to be awe inspiring. That seems to be its true purpose. It's an inspiring immigrant story, if you will, but one that adds to thousands of years of stories about fig trees, this time with an American twist. And as our friend Debbie explains, the tree is quite a handful as it continues to expand.
Debbie Hughes: 38:16
If we could get rid of the parking lot, and we could let it walk some more? And that's what we're going to do. It's just the kind of thing where we allow the tree to be the boss, and that's one of the things we have to allow. As far as the buildings go, we do protect it that direction, so it doesn't destroy any buildings from any kind of damage from limbs falling. I have the arborist look at it, go up in a lift, and we check to make sure everything is good.
Douglas Still: 38:45
[And still one more surprising tale.] At some point that tree started to grow like mad and start to spread.
Debbie Hughes: 38:55
Let me tell you about that. In order for them to get it to spread more - it is a champion anyway, it is a champion tree. It's the largest continental banyan tree in the whole United States. The definite improvement and making it walk was done by a curator, Mr. Holgren. Now this is just an urban legend also, but I kind of believe this happened. Wherever they wanted new aerial roots to fall down and start into the ground again. So they took a shotgun and they would shoot holes exactly where they wanted those aerial roots to start growing [oh boy].And that put a little stress on that getting shot I'm sure. So it kind of maybe made the chemicals come out and say okay, I need to put some roots here. And you know, in honesty, that's one of the reasons why we need to get rid of the parking lot too because we need to do some more of those shotgun shootings.
Doug Still: 39:52
Oh, do you have a shotgun?
Debbie Hughes: 39:56
[Both laugh] I'm not gonna say we're gonna do that. We're gonna see how it works [okay] But that is an urban legend for sure.
Doug Still: 40:03
How does it inspire people, do you think? What do they say after they see it?
Debbie Hughes: 40:09
They say that they have gone to tree heaven. You know, some people actually have a bucket list of trees they want to see. And that's one of them.
Doug Still: 40:20
How many years have you worked there?
Debbie Hughes: 40:22
Doug Still: 40:24
After 16 years of working there, what meaning does the tree have for you?
Debbie Hughes: 40:30
Job security for one [Doug laughs]. It is, to me that tree is gonna go on forever. And I know that the next person who takes over they're gonna love it just as much as me.
Doug Still: 40:45
Well Debbie, you've been a charming guest on This Old Tree. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about the Edison Banyan, and I wish you well in caring for the tree [and keeping it healthy] keeping it healthy and expanding. Thank you for coming on the show.
Debbie Hughes: 41:04
Thanks Doug, you're the best.
Doug Still: 41:07
Once again, I'd like to thank Debbie Hughes for coming on the show, and thank the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in the city of Fort Myers for allowing us to feature the Edison Banyan Tree. I'd also like to thank Mike Shanahan for an incredibly engaging discussion about fig trees. His book, Gods, Wasps, and Figs is a fantastic read and I can't recommend it enough. I've listed it in the show notes. In early October, I'm going to get Patreon up and running and Patreon subscribers will be able to get the full interviews with Debbie and Mike.
I'm Doug Still, and if you liked the show, please subscribe and tune in every other week for more human stories about heritage trees. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram as well. And if you'd like to stick around, we have our very first listener submitted Tree Story Short by Sushil Sachdeva from Vadodara, India about a special mango tree. See you next time!
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 42:00
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. Wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be,, this old tree. Shadow and shade, kids down the block are selling lemonade. Send them down to cool breezes sweet cascade, tailor made by this old tree. In 1600…
Sashil Sachdeva: 42:43
Hi, I am Sushil Sachdeva, a 61 year old agriculturist from India. I'm delighted to share with this august audience the story of a giant sized mango tree, which my family is so passionate and possessive about. It is located in the backyard of our family farmhouse adjoining a lemon orchard, and a poultry farm in a village at Vadodara, a city in the western part of India.
Not by design, it actually fell into our lap as the most nondescript object standing amidst the woods on the periphery of a parcel of agricultural land that I purchased about 15 years ago. Somehow, I happen to spot that here I was, blessed with a natural gem in its most rustic form, which my predecessors on this land, being people of limited resources and meager means had no eye for. In the following couple of years, I went about redesigning the landscape of the two acre area around this tree, and now there it stands as a royalty estimated to be 60 to 70 years of age 70 feet tall with a crown diameter of 50 feet. So majestically overlooking the entire 10 acre plot, with beautifully manicured lawns and the family farmhouse tucked almost underneath on one side and the seasonal rivulet flowing on the other.
Every year in February or March, with bated breath, we wait for the appearance of flowers, which then convert to pea sized fruits in a month's time. Usually, around the first week of June the fruits are harvested. Being a native cultivar and managed fully with organic manures, the produce varies between 800 to 1500 number of fruits per year. These are six to seven inches long, kidney shaped green mangoes each weighing over a pound. These precious little little bounties are not for sale. They are meant to be devoured by family and friends, located even as far as a thousand miles away. Neatly packed into 20 pound parcels, they are shipped away to reach respective destinations within five to seven days, by when they have ripened into golden yellow, sweet smelling mangoes with a distinctive aroma.
We are still searching for a name for this rarest of rare cultivars. But I assure you that all those who have been fortunate to taste even a single bite vouch that they haven't ever come across anything similar. No wonder my 80 year old aunt from Delhi over a phone call the other day, almost admonishingly demanded that I send her a larger consignment the next year. Yeah, I realized that she, with a family of four, had just consumed only 60 of them this year. Thanks for your time. Bye then.
Doug Still: 46:09
Thank you Sushil, and have a good day everyone.