Ficus citrifolia (Moraceae)
Wild banyantree; short-leaved fig (fig family)
Origin: Florida, Mexico, Caribbean, Central America south to Paraguay
One of the most tropical sights that Florida has to offer is that of a banyan, the common name for Ficus trees which produce aerial roots. Hawaii and Florida are both home to many beautiful and large, non-native banyan trees, some of which have become invasive in both states. There are only two species of Ficus native to North America, and they are both native to Florida; Ficus aurea, the Florida strangler fig, and the lesser-known Ficus citrifolia.
Both start their lives typically as epiphytes; a fruit is eaten by a bird and soon thereafter the seeds are “deposited,” in Florida they are often deposited in the boot of a cabbage palm or on a branch of a massive cypress tree. After the seed germinates, the plant puts out long tender roots which hang toward the ground, and for years the little tree waits. After a while the roots touch the ground and grow thick and strong. At this point the tree grows faster, drawing nutrients and water from the soil for the first time. No longer an epiphyte, the banyan begins to surround the host tree and also may “walk,” growing lateral limbs far from its main trunk which drop their own aerial roots, and on and on, occasionally eventually occupying hundreds and hundreds of square feet. Palm trees can often survive a banyan’s presence until they become so shaded out they can no longer produce food through photosynthesis. In the case of cypress trees, the banyans may eventually strangle and kill the tree.
Ficus have incredibly close relationships with their pollinators, so much so that most species of fig have only one species of wasp able to pollinate it, and that wasp can only survive on that one species of fig. In order to retain and nourish their pollinating wasps, the trees must constantly bloom. This means that they are very often in fruit, which is the easiest way to tell the two native species of Ficus apart: Ficus aurea, which also usually has larger leaves, has yellow fruits when ripe that are borne close to the stem. Ficus citrifolia, which has smaller leaves and finer leaf venation, has red fruits when ripe that are borne on slender stalks.
Residents of Sarasota can see examples of both species growing wild, especially on our nearby barrier islands, and all are welcome to come view ours! Selby Gardens has a massive collection of banyan trees, including Ficus citrifolia, now in fruit on our shell mound located along the bayfront.