Invariably, when tourists visit the Puerto Vallarta, Mexico area, they inquire with questions such as “What kind of colorful bird is that?”, “What kind of amazing animal is that?”, “What are those beautiful flowers?”, or “What’s the name of that unusual looking tree?” After 12 years of replying with “We don’t have a clue, but they’re all over the area; pretty neat, huh?”, we decided to do a little research so as not to seem so oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding us in the foothills of the Sierra Madres overlooking the Banderas Bay in the center of the Mexican Riviera!
One such remarkable quirk of nature is the Ficus; a member of the Mulberry Family. Other names for the Ficus tree are Banyan tree or Fig tree. There are approximately 1,000 different species of Ficus trees which can be found on just about every tropical continent and in most of the tropical rain forests throughout the world including the Hawaiian Islands which lie on virtually the same latitude as Puerto Vallarta.
Often, these exotic fig trees grow from seeds that have germinated high up in the crowns of palms, sending aerial roots down and around the straight trunks of the palms to the ground. Once the aerial roots have reached the ground, they begin to grow in size, eventually strangling out the host tree; hence they’re referred to as strangler figs.
These strangler figs or banyan trees have the appearance of a large boa constrictor wrapped around the host palm. After many years of growth, they will dwarf the palm and eventually destroy it leaving behind a huge fig tree with a bizarre looking trunk; often with a hole up through the center where the palm once existed.
In the Puerto Vallarta area, these stranglers can be found all over the hill sides and of course along the banks of the Rio Cuale. In fact, just recently a huge strangler fig tree near the Banderas Bay shoreline adjacent to the Rio Cuale had to be removed for the construction of a new beachfront condominium project. Fortunately, a group of botanists saved some of its branches and planted them in a local botanical garden. After a year or so of taking root, they have been replanted in the same location of the spectacular “mother” tree and hopefully it’ll once again become a majestic banyan tree.
Other notable banyans in Vallarta are located along the Rio Cuale and on the small island in the center of the river where a number of famous restaurants are located. These banyans provide a beautiful and interesting sight for the guests of the fine dining establishments.
The banyans are so well protected that streets are sometimes routed around them so as not to disturb them after well over a hundred years of growth. One such tree with a six foot diameter trunk is located totally in the street of the bypass around town!
Not only are the beautiful live stranglers located all over town but dead ones are also often seen. One of the most common uses for harvested banyans is for small structure or palapa support columns; palapas being the open air gathering places with the thatched roofs. A typical palapa will have columns of a native hard wood but a really neat, “high end” palapa, will have columns of the more expensive and much more interesting and beautiful hard wood strangler fig. They are generally shaved of bark and then varnished to yield a magnificent surface finish.
Very large banyans can also be sliced to produce unique table tops and furniture pieces. The number of products that can be manufactured from these wonders of nature is only limited by ones imagination.In certain societies, the banyan tree is the symbol of spirit and matter, descending to the earth, striking root, and then re-ascending heavenward again. To others, it symbolizes fertility and is worshipped by those who want children. Prior to the advent of grain and other food products, some early Indian cultures have been known to find nourishment from its “milk”. To some cultures, this tree, with its ability to support its growing weight by an ever-widening circle of root-like branches, represents eternal life. One thing for sure, the banyans or strangler figs are unique and have been appreciated by mankind throughout the world for 1,000´s of years.
Banyans are so distinctive and majestic that numerous hotels and resorts have been named after them. They are so much protected that most often the establishments are built around them; leaving the banyan as the main focal point of the grounds.
During your next visit to PV, keep your eyes open when you get off the beaten path (sometimes you won’t even have to leave the beaten path!) and you’ll surely encounter a banyan tree with its strange, almost grotesque trunk/root system wrapped around a palm, one of the oldest and most extraordinary of the many beautiful natural sights that Vallarta has to offer. These stranglers live randomly throughout the city and seldom will anyone pass one without inquiring about it. Now that you know what a banyan or strangler fig is, you’ll be able to impress your friends during your stay in Paradise when they point to one of these incredible wonders of nature! Furthermore, you can inform them that the name banyan, a word from India, was derived from the meeting class (banias) that conducted their village meetings for hours while sitting in the shade under the huge strangler figs.
By now, you must almost feel like a professional botanist; so come on down and practice your botany! The stranglers and the Vallartenses await you with open arms.