Ficus, The Fig Genus

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The Ficus genus is home to around 850 species of plants in the dicotyledenous Moraceae family that come in a range of shapes and sizes, but can most easily be recognised by their round or pear-shaped fruit or infructescence (inflorescence before pollination).

Plants in this genus can be sensitive to location change; perhaps if you’ve ever taken a rubber plant home from the nursery and it lost the bulk of its leaves you can relate to this.

Mature fig trees are quite possibly the best trees for kids to play in; there’s just something about their branch structure and buttress roots that makes them fun to climb and hide in.

Description

Fig relatives can grow as a woody tree, shrub or vine. Many species such as Moreton Bay figs have buttress roots that provide additional structural support.

Their true flowers and fruit occur within a hollowed stem that we term a "fruit". It is in fact a false fruit, or a recaptacle holding many fruits.

When mature, the main trunk may be relatively short compared to the numerous branches that reach out in all directions. In shady areas, plants may race for the sun with a single leader, leading to the growth of a tall main trunk.

Thin aerial roots may come off branches, and if enough time is allowed these roots will reach the soil and potentially eventually grow a whole new tree, especially in the case of mature strangler figs.

Fig trees have a milky sap when cut or when a leaf is snapped off, as do other members of the Moraceae family.

A  Ficus sp . with sap oozing out of a blue fig fruit.    Image source

A Ficus sp. with sap oozing out of a blue fig fruit. Image source

Flowers, Fruits & Leaves

Flowers: Monoecious flowers (sometimes dioecious) exist in an inflorescence within a hollow stem.

Fruit: Figs have a composite fruit called a syconium, with the apparent "seeds" being the true fruits (tiny drupes or achenes), each with a true seed within. The part we call the "fruit" is in fact the receptacle.

Leaves: The fig genus has produced some pretty varied leaves. Benjamin fig leaves and rubber fig leaves are vastly different in size, but roughly the same oval (elliptic) shape and waxy texture. Contrast these with the fuzzy-feeling, lobed palmate leaves of the culinary common fig. They are usually alternating, however sometimes leaves are opposite.

Pollination

Because of their morphology (shape/structure), figs require highly specialised pollinating wasps.

Female wasps enter when the fig "ostiole" opens during pollination, where the calyx (dry sepals) would be on an apple or pear. This is a one-way mission as they lose their wings during the process.

They lay their eggs in the female flowers which become fertile and grow galls wherein the offspring grow within eggs. Once they hatch, wingless males mate with females, who become covered in pollen and burrow out to pollinate the next generation of figs.

In monoecious species, there are plants with both sexes, and plants with only female parts. The "male" plants have separate male and female flowers (like their dioecious relatives), but the female flowers never grow fruit and their function is to provide a brooding site for pollinators within the “male” plants.

The female plants of these monoecious species can only receive pollen and create seeds, whereas their "brothers" (who technically do have female organs) produce pollen to send to them.

Noteworthy Types

The bodhi tree F. religiosa has significance as the type of tree the the Buddha gained enlightenment beneath.

Bodhi tree  Ficus religiosa  leaves.    Image source

Bodhi tree Ficus religiosa leaves. Image source

Rubber trees F. elastica are cultivated for their sap which is used in the production of rubber. They also make great indoor plants because of their large, dramatically coloured leaves.

A couple of baby rubber trees  Ficus elastica , one variegated and one not variegated.    Image source

A couple of baby rubber trees Ficus elastica, one variegated and one not variegated. Image source

Moreton Bay figs F. macrophylla are one of my personal favourite plants. They have beautiful, large elliptic leaves (slightly smaller than F. elastica leaves), red to purple fruits and are huge when they can reach their full potential. This iconic plant is quite possibly my favourite tree and is the inspiration for this blog’s logo.

The branch structure and buttress roots of the glorious Moreton Bay fig  Ficus macrophylla .    Image source

The branch structure and buttress roots of the glorious Moreton Bay fig Ficus macrophylla. Image source

Moreton Bay fig  Ficus macrophylla  leaves and figs.    Image source

Moreton Bay fig Ficus macrophylla leaves and figs. Image source

F. benjamina is one of the most common indoor and outdoor ornamental figs. Sometimes called a weeping fig, Benjamin fig, or simply a ficus or fig tree.

Benjamin fig  Ficus benjamina  foliage.    Image source

Benjamin fig Ficus benjamina foliage. Image source

Fiddle-leaf figs F. lyrata make great indoor plants with partial light. They get their name from the shape of their lobed lyrate leaves, which resemble a fiddle

Fiddle leaf fig  Ficus lyrata .    Image source

Fiddle leaf fig Ficus lyrata. Image source

Banyan trees are strangler figs that begin life growing out of bird poo in a tree crevice as an "epiphyte", meaning that they live on another tree without being a parasite. They will eventually swallow the host in roots, and the host will die to provide fertiliser for the fig. A plant that spends part of its life as an epiphyte and part of its life with roots in the ground is called a “hemiepiphyte”, a term that applies to banyans.

Examples of banyans are F. benghalensis, the national tree of India, and strangler figs F. watkinsiana native to Queensland.

Ficus watkinsiana  is s strangler fig. This one probably started life in a puddle of bird poo in the crook of a branch of a tree. That original tree probably died long ago and has decomposed; you can see the gaps between the roots that now support a successful and mature banyan tree.    Image source

Ficus watkinsiana is s strangler fig. This one probably started life in a puddle of bird poo in the crook of a branch of a tree. That original tree probably died long ago and has decomposed; you can see the gaps between the roots that now support a successful and mature banyan tree. Image source

Almost all figs (as in the fruit) are technically edible, but there are several main types that are generally grown for this purpose, including Ficus carica also known as the common fig.

A common fig  Ficus carica  split apart revealing the tiny fruits inside.  Image source

A common fig Ficus carica split apart revealing the tiny fruits inside. Image source

Conclusion

Ficus is a genus full of beautiful plants that make attractive ornamental plants in our gardens and delicious fruits on our plates. If you’re living in a tropical region, you’ll tend to do better with figs but they can do really well down here in Melbourne, too.

Most fig fruits aren’t that palatable to humans, but birds absolutely love them. Be prepared to pay for incresed bird sightings with their purple, seedy poo if you plan on planting a ficus variety.

If you haven’t already read my articles on plant identification and scientific names, I recommend reading those to get a broader picture of the topic. Alternatively, you can browse some of my other plant families, subfamilies and genera below.

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