Ficus religiosa: Sacred fig tree

Family: Moraceae
Common name: Sacred fig, Sacred bo tree, Peepal, Pipul, Peepal tree, Aalmaram, Arayaal, Bodhi tree, Pippala tree, Peepul tree, Ashwatha tree

This tree is called the Sacred fig tree since it has religious significance in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree or sacred fig tree, the tree of awakening.

Only those sacred fig trees that originated from the original Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India is called a Bodhi tree. Every time the original Bodhi tree was destroyed, a new one was planted in its place.

Sacred fig trees can grow to a height of 30 meters with a wide-spreading crown. The trunk usually consists of multiple segments which buttress the main trunk and can grow to a diameter of about 3 meters. The leaves have a distinct heart shape with a very elongated tip.

The movement of the leaves in wind is very unique, wherein they move rapidly from side the side, mainly because of their thin leaves, long petioles, and peculiar shape. Leaves are about 10-15 cms long and 8-12 cms wide, copper green when young, and light green and then dark green when they become older.

Sacred fig trees also produce small fig-like fruits which are about 1-1.5 centimeters in diameter, initially green, later turning red and purple.

These trees can live for a very long time, over 1,000 years. One of the oldest trees is the Jaya Shri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka which is said to be over 2,250 years old.

Sacred fig trees can start off as epiphytes on other tree trunks, from where they send down roots to draw nourishment for the young tree. Once the Sacred fig tree is established, the trunk grows around the original tree, and chokes it.

They are native to the Indian subcontinent and grows well in warm, tropical weather. In India, Peepal trees are seen outside most temples and holy places, where devotees circumambulate the tree 7 times, a ritual called pradakshina. Women tie sacred threads around the tree, walking around it 108 times, praying for the health and well-being of their husbands.

Sacred fig trees are also grown in home gardens, parks, and botanical gardens as ornamental and shade trees. They prefer full sunlight and well-drained soil. Once established in the soil, the tree can be ignored for years, and need very little maintenance.

They can also be grown as bonsai trees in small pots, by trimming the roots and larger leaves; and restricting the soil available for the tree to take root. In villages, the sacred fig trees were gathering spots for local functions, panchayat meetings, village courts, etc.

In the wild, sacred fig trees are used for wood, edible fruits, and leaves; and also for medicinal purposes. The leaves and twigs are used to treat stomach ailments, fever, asthma, epilepsy, diarrhea, wounds, skin diseases, ulcers, diabetes; and also as an antidote to venomous bites.

Sacred fig tree bark can be used to make paper, and the latex can be used to make varnishes. Seeds of the tree are used to make prayer beads, which are considered to be holy because of the tree’s connection with Gautama Buddha.

Propagation is through seeds.