The banyan tree is quite often seen on Reunion where it was imported from India by Indian workers brought over for field work when slavery was abolished in 1848. Now there are several different tree species called banyan tree; Ficus aurea, F.citrifolia, F.elastica, F.macrophylla etc...but I am talking about the ‘real one' hence F.benghalensis which the species name clearly indicates it comes from Bengal. The vernacular name of ‘banyan' comes from ‘bania' or ‘banya' which means ‘merchants' as wandering merchants used to relax in the shade of those giant trees or would settle business trades and even put out stalls under the large branches. It is not the utmost sacred Indian tree which is Ficus religiosa, a different species under which Buddha supposedly attained illumination while meditating, but still has important religious ties. Many Ficus species do produce aerial roots which eventually reach the ground and allow such trees to colonize large surfaces of land as well as providing a seemingly eternal life, the original trunk it started from may die and decay but new trunks, branches and roots will keep the same individual alive hence generating respect and devotion from humans. In the Chandra Bose botanical garden near Kolkata (India) is a F.benghalensis about 250 years old which spreads over 14500 square meters (four acres) a rather impressive example of what such plant can do!
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The banyans to be pruned Setting for a day's work!
Sharp tools are a necessity!

Anyway, we are not in India but on Reunion Island and I was called by a representative of the city hall to conduct a phytosanitary survey on a row of large ficus trees growing alongside a school yard in St-Pierre. Those trees have grown to a height of some 20 meters (60 feet) as they enjoy a rather sheltered place so cyclones have not shattered them so far, deep alluvial soils and plenty of water as they are just by a ravine exit which also has seawater entering. As large decaying branches and dead limbs had been spotted a close inspection revealed that those branches had actually simply lost their leaves and dried because of a lack of light, some termites were also spotted but not in an alarming quantity. As can be seen on the pictures those banyans not only grow over a school yard but also over a promenade along the shore and a metal kiosk where people rest and enjoy the scenery, it was therefore mandatory to take action and a pruning program was elaborated. Such a program means discussing by and large with the town authorities (who are responsible for security and works in schools); they usually consider that drastic pruning is the solution so we have to explain that it is not so and slowly drive them to consider things with a little plant biology reflection. Drastic pruning means that you cut large branches and reduce greatly the volume of the tree; the first eye effect may seem reassuring to an amateur eye even if the result is obviously un-aesthetic. But apart from being ugly it will soon bring more problems; large wounds will not heal satisfactorily hence allowing insects and fungi to penetrate the tree inner tissues; adventives buds will grow on the periphery of those large wounds, grow into branches lacking a strong insertion and therefore prone to breaking or tearing easily. A better thing is to climb high up in the tree and cut only minor diameter limbs, always being careful to keep a sap-drawer or small leaved branch which will allow sap to keep flowing and promote the cells to start healing. Of course lower decaying limbs and the ones infected by termites will be removed as well as part of the pendulous roots which fall in the way.
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Truck and groundies
Up in the tree!
A little further up...

As several days are required to conduct the job with three climbers and five ground workers we set to work on a Wednesday when pupils are home so we could get the tough work done without smashing a few small heads! At a quarter to seven a small truck and several cars parked in the yard and everyone proceeded to get ready; ground workers make the area secure by posting appropriate signals and using fluorescent tap, climbers put on harnesses, helmets, unpack ropes and all necessary gizmos. Chainsaws are filled with chain oil and gas, chains are sharpened and hand saws fastened. Once we decide which side to start working on every climber chooses a strong enough fork on which to set the access rope, preferably as high as possible and proceeds to send the weighted bag used to further install the rope and up we go!
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Work in progress
Still in progress...
Find the climber!

Communication with ground workers is essential for various reasons; one is to make sure nobody stands beside when climbers start cutting, another is that ground staff have a different view angle and thus may direct operations that might not seem necessary from the climber's view but will make a difference for final result. Ground folks may also spot split branches or torn bark, wasps nest and other annoyances...Therefore both climbing and ground teams carry powerful rescue whistles which produce a sharp enough blow (120 db) to cover even a running chainsaw noise and signal a danger. As for all pruning once the rope has been installed on a resistant high branch and running through a cambium saver or false crotch we slide back down and start pruning the lower branches. The obvious reason is to clear the way for upper branches to fall, avoid getting the ropes caught while ascending and is especially important when working in trees of the Moraceae family such as the Ficus as they contain latex, a milky sap. This latex resembles a lot the one from rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) although the Hevea belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family. Anyway, this latex is very sticky and even a slight wound on the bark will allow it to start running; if entering the eye it will be quite painful and may even require to stop working and get appropriate eye washing, some sensitive people may also get skin reactions like rashes. But the most annoying is that ropes get sticky and hamper the proper running of friction hitches we use for displacement in the tree, tools and clothes also become sticky and catch sawdust.
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A view from atop
Water in the background
Happy as a monkey

Nevertheless we keep pruning, cutting and sawing, climbing up and down, all the way to the end of large limbs and sometimes working upside down. If large pieces are to be removed they will first be secured with a specific rope passing through a pulley attached further up then going through a braking device such as a figure eight, a groundy will control the lowering by slowly releasing the rope, this is done to avoid damaging the soil, plants, fences or whatever is underneath. A special feature of this place is the presence of water which on one hand allowed the climbers to cut large branches without worrying what was underneath but obliged the ground staff to put on sneakers and shorts and get wet to retrieve the same branches, not a bad thing in tropical weather!
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Nice trees by the water...
Wet groundies
At last we made it!

After a few hours spent up in the trees it is time to climb back down and have some food, this is a rather demanding job and one cannot go long on an empty stomach, we will take advantage of the break to sharpen the chains and try to get rid of some of this latex! You can also take a break and have a coffee but make sure to put on your hard hat as soon as you get back, you never know what may come falling down!