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Anita’s Blog – Beware A Pretty Leaf

Sacred Fig, AKA: Bo Tree. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

There used to be an interesting mid-May Bioblitz. It documented invasive species as a project in The last Texas Invasive Species BioBlitz was May 2021, as part of the National Invasive Species Awareness Week.

The NISAW is now recognized around the end of February instead of in the middle of May; there have been no Texas invasive species Bioblitzes since 2021. I participated in them during 2019, 2020 and 2021, which gave me the impetus to keep a photo file of invasive species. The file keeps growing.

What’s so bad about invasive species? One answer: “Invasive species are capable of causing extinctions of native plants and animals, reducing biodiversity, competing with native organisms for limited resources and altering habitats.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA)

One of my invasive species subjects is around the corner and down the road from where I live. It’s a giant tree. I drive by it going and coming and can easily observe its happenings. By the way, it’s a giant, nonnative tree – you probably gleaned that from the word giant. iNaturalist identified the tree and leaves as sacred fig, Ficus religiosa – a tree that can grow to 98 feet tall with a trunk diameter of up to 9.8 feet, according to Wikipedia.

I never measured the diameter as the tree is on private property. I did have the homeowner’s permission to photograph their tree and take a leaf a couple of years ago. Someone on iNaturalist had seen my sacred fig observations, contacted me and wanted a leaf from the tree for a study. The requester mentioned in one of his e-mails that he thought he’d read where it was an excellent species for Bonsai. I pretended to ignore that comment and included photos of the tree along with the huge leaf, thinking he would ascertain that a Bonsai option probably wasn’t viable with a sacred fig.

To be fair, the requester had seen my observations of the sacred fig that were growing between the slats of one of our retaining walls – in two separate years, which was rather a conundrum, and one discovered beneath a coral bean tree in the yard. They are cute when they’re little (photo trio below), but still, not Bonsai material – however, in that I am wrong. Google: sacred fig bonsai tree.

To show scale, I had photographed the tree in relation to a pickup truck and the house. The tree at that time was on its third comeback. In the past 12 or so years, attempts have been made to get rid of the tree by cutting it down and a few years later, after it grew back, by whittling on it (with a chainsaw). As you can guess, the tree continues to re-grow. At the time of my photos, it had not yet climbed to its former height glory.

The student requesting a leaf had sent me a packet for collecting the specimen and a pre-paid mailer to send it to him. I never heard from him after I mailed the packet and assumed he graduated, or the leaf was not at all what he’d expected.

So not to keep you in suspense, here’s the rest of the story: for the past four weeks, two men with big chainsaws have, chunk by chunk, finally levelled the gargantuan tree. The photo is after several large trailer loads have removed the wood.

Giant Sacred Fig tree; the trunk footprint is about the size of the black truck. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I mention this sacred fig tree tale only to show it as a dramatic example of something getting out of hand.

Sacred fig is also called Bo tree, Bodhi, Pipul tree, Budi and Bodi. It is native to the Indian subcontinent, east Himalaya, Myanmar and Malayan region, according to Wikipedia. The tree’s lifespan is from 900 to 1,500 years and possibly more than 2,500. years. It can reach maturity in four to 10 years.

Interestingly, about 50 Sacred fig trees have been uploaded to iNaturalist from the Rio Grande Valley, ranging from Palmhurst at the west end to Brownsville to the east and nothing north of Houston. It’s a good thing Texas is big, still, it’s not a good thing to mess with Texas with nonnative species such as giant trees. In recent years, three of the iNat sacred fig photos were taken in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. As much as I can tell, the specimens showed very young growth. Hopefully, the upstarts were eradicated after the photos were taken.

The pretty leaf. The leaves of sacred fig are quite something.

The beautiful leaf of the Sacred Fig tree showing the attractive venation. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The leaves of the sacred fig tree are cordate in shape (in botany, that means heart-shaped with a point at the apex and a notch at the base) with a distinctive extended drip tip. The Wikipedia description of drip tip is, “a long, narrow extension at the tip of a leaf, that promotes shedding of water, a description of the functional shape that aids dripping, regardless the specific geometry of the leaf.” More than you wanted to know possibly, but I thought it interesting to consider leaves as geometric shapes. But of course, they are, aren’t they? If you’re not aware, Wikipedia has an extensive glossary of botanical terms:

There’s a giant tree hidden in the midst of one of our popular parks.

A few years ago, I attended a six-hour L.A.N.D.S. teacher training at Estero Llano Grande State Park. I recalled photographing a giant tree as we left class. I sent a couple of those photos to Javier de Leon, the park superintendent and one of the advisors to the two Texas Master Naturalist chapters in the Rio Grande Valley. He replied, saying the tree is a Banyan tree. (iNaturalist lists it as Indian Banyan, Ficus benghalensis).

Javier’s interest was piqued when I asked about the tree; he found a Wikipedia site that offered this information: “The name was originally given to F. benghalensis and comes from India, where early European travelers observed that the shade of the tree was frequented by Banyans (a corruption of Baniyas, a community of Indian traders).”

The Banyan tree can grow to about 100 feet tall and spread over several acres; it is very fast growing and can reach full size in about 5 years. Their lifespan is from 200 to 500 years. Banyan trees have hanging roots – and although the girth is similar, this is where they differ from their sacred fig tree cousins -- botanically, “propagating roots which grow downwards as aerial roots on the branches that grow downward. Once these roots reach the ground, they take root and become woody trunks and supportive,” according to Wikipedia.

Banyan tree leaves also are large. They are long and oval, not at all similar to leaves of the sacred fig. No observation of the huge banyan tree in the state park has been uploaded onto iNaturalist. Those listed there are concentrated in Florida and southern California.

The giant, but relatively young Banyan Tree in Estero Llano Grande State Park. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Hanging Roots of an ancient Banyan Tree in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

One more interesting nonnative tree is Chinese tallow, Triadica sebifera. It is easy to confuse the leaves with those of the sacred fig tree, but it is not related. Chinese tallow is not a Ficus. It is in the Spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. I find little starts of Chinese tallow periodically in our yard and have had the identification verified in iNaturalist. As a matter of fact, hundreds of hits of Chinese tallow populate the southeast quadrant of the United States in iNaturalist.

The leaves are pretty. They are bright green in color, “heart shaped and sometimes with an extended tail, often resembling the sacred fig tree,” according to They turn yellow, orange, purple and red in the autumn.

The seedlings are pretty indiscriminate where they come up, in the frog fruit, hidden among other vegetation and one year, I found a single leaf on the ground with yellow and orange coloration. The leaf litter negatively affects frogs, according to the Website.

Chinese tallow is native to eastern Asia (China), also called Florida aspen, chicken tree, gray popcorn tree or candleberry tree. It is fast growing and tenacious; a single tallow tree can produce nearly 100,000 viable seeds annually. It can quickly grow to 40 to 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide, outcompeting many native plants, according to the Texas Invasive Species Institute. Chinese tallow is invasive from the Carolinas and Georgia to California.

Fortunately, for Texas, the two giant Ficus species aren’t aggressive propagators like the Chinese tallow, still it’s wise to be vigilant, keep an eye on your land, learn to recognize a pretty-but-treacherous leaf and remove invasive trees when they are small. I applaud you for reading to the end.

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