Bodhi Day is a holiday celebrated primarily in the Mahayana varieties of Buddhism. As with many holidays, this one has a special connection to a specific plant. The Bodhi Tree or Ficus religiosa is also known as the peepal tree and it’s under this ancient fig tree that Siddartha Gautama is said to have achieved enlightenment and became the spiritual leader known as the Buddha.

Sacred Fig Tree

Golden Statue with Bodhi Leaves

While the tree also has significance to Hinduism and Jainism, on the surface it’s a simple deciduous semi evergreen with a wide trunk that can reach heights of nearly a hundred feet tall. As its importance in many Asian religions suggests, it’s natural habitat is tropical Asia but in the modern day they are cultivated all around the world in different forms.

Bodhi trees grow across a wide range of temperature zones, a trait which it owes to the extremely varied altitudes and temperatures of the continent it hails from. It’s also especially tolerant of swings in precipitation. In fact the peepal tree is so fast-growing and well adapted to so many environments, that various parts of the world consider it an invasive species. The only reason we don’t see more of this species, sometimes called ashwattha trees, in even greater numbers may be because of its reliance on the aganoid wasp as its only naturally occurring pollinator outside of human efforts to cultivate it. These wasps are even often known as fig wasps since they’re so closely linked with the bodhi.

If there’s one aspect that you could say this fig tree is particular about, it might be the soil it prefers. It can still grow in numerous different soil types, but its preferred place to put down roots is in deep sandy loam, or loose soil that contains small amounts of clay. The bodhi also thrives in soil with good drainage.

Growing a Bodhi Tree

Regardless of the meaning the tree may hold for you, peepul trees are still grown by nurseries and are sold as ornamental trees. Sacred fig trees can indeed produce figs, but they’re tiny and have questionable color and flavor sometimes reaching only 1 to 2 centimeters in size.

Their vibrant, heart-shaped leaves with a signature tip makes them a visually pleasing addition to yards, pots, and even public parks in some countries. For a variety that produces edible figs, the Ficus carica is your best bet. Unlike their religiously significant counterpart, this fruiting and flowering tree grows best in specific conditions. Aim to plant fruiting fig trees in Zone 8 or warmer areas, and like the Bodhi these plants also prefer loamy soil with good drainage.

When is Bodhi Day?

Decorated Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

According to tradition, Siddartha adopted an ascetic lifestyle and sat under a common fig tree meditating for years. In doing so, he was able to understand what the root of all suffering was, and was subsequently able to free himself from the world's suffering and gain enlightment. His title of the Buddha is a direct reference to the bohi tree.

Sadly, the original tree where this event is said to have taken place has since been destroyed. The site remains to the present day and the tree has been replaced many times. However, a cutting from the original did survive destruction and was transplanted in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The sacred fig that's grown in its place also has spiritual significance and is known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, and the site is a well traveled destination for Buddhists on pilgrimages.

Many Budddhist sects observe Bodhi day in accordance with the Chinese lunar calendar, with the celebration typically falling on the 8th day of the 12th month in that date system. In conventional dates, the holiday falls on January 13. A notable exception is the sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan which maintains the 8 and 12 rule, but uses a calendar many of us in Western culture may be familiar with. Consequently, their observance of Bodhi Day falls on December 8 and is sometimes called Rohatsu. However, both are meant to celebrate the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Bodhi Day Celebrations

The holiday is celebrated in a number of ways. Though it's largely a day of celebration, it is also a day of remembrance which means that Buddhists and laypeople alike are encouraged to spend the holiday to thoughtfully consider the meaning of enlightenment and the significance of the Buddha. For instance, eating a meal of rice with can be a tradition Buddhists practice on this day as this was said to be the first meal Siddartha ate to replenish himself after his extended fasting and meditation. Interior spaces are often decorated with lights to symbolize the enlightenment.

Of course, it all comes back to the tree. Similar to the way Christmas trees are adorned in Christian homes, Buddhists may often keep a small potted Ficus religiosa indoors. During the holiday, the sacred fig is covered with colorful lights and strings of beads strewn together as a tangible reminder of the Buddhist belief that all things are united. Unlike other festive trees which hold many decorative ornaments, a Bodhi Day tree will often only have three distinct ornaments of specific colors to symbolize the Three Jewels, or the three forms of expression for the awakened mind: the Buddha represented in yellow, the Dharma represented in blue, and the Sangha represented by red.