One group of fig trees are the so-called strangler figs. Most seeds of these species begin their life as an epiphyte in a tree, the seed sprouting in a crack, or often in a pile of bird dung, delivered by the bird that ate the fig fruit. (The seed is not harmed by passing through the gut of the bird.)
Over the years, aerial roots of the young strangler fig grow down to the ground, where they take root, while other roots wrap themselves around and over time completely enveloping the host tree, which is eventually strangled to death. As its trunk decays, the fig tree is left as a hollow cylinder of aerial roots.
Many of the strangler figs not only grow on trees, they also very often sprouts in cracks on buildings. If they are left in peace, their roots will destroy the building.
Fig flowers are unique, hidden inside a syconium, a globular or pear-shaped receptacle with a very small opening, during which tiny fig wasps enter, belonging to various families in the superfamily Chalcidoidea. Each of these fig wasps only enter one species of fig.
Inside the syconium, the females lay eggs in sterile female flowers, which serve as food for the larvae. At the same time, they fertilize other female flowers with pollen, which was deposited on them just inside the opening, where the male flowers are situated. Later, the receptacle swells up, forming the fig, which contains many seeds.
The generic name is the classical Latin word for fig.
I have observed many species eat the fruits, in Asia for instance blue-headed barbet (Psilopogon asiaticus), Taiwan-barbet (Psilopogon nuchalis), red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha), white-eared sibia (Heterophasia auricularis), rosy starling (Pastor roseus), common myna (Acridotheres tristis), Asian glossy starling (Aplonis panayensis), light-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis), Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus), rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta), and bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata).
In Africa for example red-eyed dove (Streptopelia semitorquata), African green pigeon (Treron calvus), violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), and superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus).
It is distributed from north-eastern Pakistan and northern India eastwards to southern China, and thence southwards through Indochina to the Malacca Peninsula, but is often cultivated elsewhere. Its natural habitats include forests, shrubberies, and river banks.
The fruit is edible and sweet, and is used medicinally as a diuretic and a laxative, and to regulate digestion. The foliage is cut for fodder.
Strictly speaking, the specific name is derived from the Latin auricula (‘external ear’), but in a botanical context it mostly means ‘with two eared lobes near the base’, in this case alluding to the broadly heart-shaped leaf base. The alternative specific name is derived from Ancient Greek oligos (‘few’) and odous (‘tooth’), referring to the wide space between the teeth along the leaf margin.
The common name of course refers to the very large leaves.
It belongs to the strangler figs, but also often grows as a large free-standing tree, to 30 m tall. Hanging down from the branches are numerous aerial roots, which often take root, over time creating a ’forest’ of trunks, all of which are in fact a single individual. The world’s largest tree, by canopy coverage, is found in Kolkata, eastern India (see picture below).
The leaves are broadly ovate, very thick, to 30 cm long and 20 cm wide, the leaf-stalk may be to 7 cm long, but is often much shorter. The fruits are very small, to 2 cm across, orange or red at maturity.
Banyan is much utilized in traditional medicine. A decoction of the leaves is used to treat dysentery and diarrhoea, and a poultice made from young leaves is applied to abscesses. The latex is used to treat toothache, bruises, rheumatic joints, lumbago, and gonorrhoea, and, mixed with sugar, to treat dysentery in children. A decoction of the bark is tonic and diuretic.
The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘of Bengal’. Strictly speaking, Bengal is the lowland around the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, but in the early period of British colonial India, the term ‘Bengal’ indicated a much larger portion of northern India.
The weeping fig is native to the Indian Subcontinent, eastwards to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards through Indochina and Indonesia to northern Australia, and eastwards to some of the Pacific islands.
In temperate areas, it is a very popular house plant, which can tolerate rather dry conditions.
The specific name is a corruption of the Hindi word banyan – a term used not only for the true banyan (F. benghalensis, above), but also to other large fig trees with aerial roots.
“Now, the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman, “for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
These fig leaves were from the common fig, which has been cultivated for thousands of years in countries around the Mediterranean, which was presumably its original area of distribution. Today, no wild populations are known.
It is a small deciduous tree or large shrub, to 10 m tall, with smooth white bark. The leaves are large, to 25 cm long and 18 cm wide, with 3 or 5 deep lobes. The fruit is tear-shaped, to 5 cm long, intially green, which turns to purple or brown at maturity. The soft reddish or brown flesh is sweet-tasting and contains many tiny seeds. The fruits are eaten fresh or dried, or processed into jam or various types of desserts.
The common fig has also been used medicinally. The latex is a laxative, and the latex from unripe fruits was a remedy for warts and internal parasites.
The world production of figs was about 1.2 million tonnes in 2020, with Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt as the largest producers.
The specific name is the feminine form of the adjective Caricus, a shortening of Caria and ficus (‘fig’), thus ‘the fig from Caria’, in Ancient Greek Karia, a Greek province in present-day south-western Turkey.
It is native from north-eastern India and Bangladesh eastwards acroos northern Indochina to southern China, Taiwan, southern Korea, and Japan.
The tree is occasionally planted as an ornamental, and the bark fibres are used for making paper.
The specific name may apply to the fruit stalk, which is often erect.
It is usually rather low, to 15 m tall, but can reach 30 m in its native habitat. The crown is dense and rounded in mature trees, but rather sparse in young trees. The leaves are large, glossy, dark green, leathery, to 45 cm long and 30 cm wide, with prominent yellow veins on the upper surface and raised below, variable in shape, broadest towards the tip, often obovate, but sometimes with a narrow middle, resembling a lyre or a fiddle (hence its popular name), and often with wavy margins.
The fruit is globular, to 3 cm across, pale green with indented brownish dots. When drying out, they become very wrinkled.
It may grow very large, the largest known specimen being in the Menehune Botanical Gardens, Kauai, Hawaii, which is about 33 m tall, with a crown spread of c. 75 m and more than 1000 aerial roots. The trunk can also grow very thick, the thickest known specimen being 8.5 m thick at breast height, found on Big Island, Hawaii.
The leathery leaves are short-stalked, ovate or elliptic, to 14 cm long and 9 cm broad, often with an abrupt, blunt tip, base narrowed or rounded. The fruits are stalkless, globular, to 1 cm across, green at first, later pink, red, or black.
Its natural habitats include forests, river banks, swamps, and mangroves, but it may also sprout in cracks on buildings.
Root, bark, and leaf latex are used medicinally to treat wounds, headache, toothache, colic, and liver trouble. The latex is also used for caulking boats. Formerly, fibres from the bark were made into cloth. The wood is used locally to make tools etc., and as fuel.
The specific name is derived from Ancient Greek mikros (‘small’) and karpos (‘fruit’).
This species is widely distributed, found in north-eastern Africa, from Egypt southwards to Somalia, in southern Arabia, and from Iran and Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal. It grows in forests, along streams, and on rocky slopes.
It is often cultivated. Young shoots are eaten as a vegetable. The ripe fruit is edible, and also used to ease constipation. The unripe fruit is poisonous, but edible after being boiled thoroughly. The latex is used for curdling milk, and medicinally to treat warts. The foliage is lopped for fodder.
The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘hand-shaped’, in a botanical context indicating a leaf with 3 or more lobes or veins, arising from the same point. Thus we learn that Pehr Forsskål (1732-1763), when he encountered this species in Yemen, named it from a plant with deeply lobed leaves. – Life and death of this excellent naturalist is described on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.
Pipal is indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent and Myanmar, but as is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jainists, it is very commonly planted in areas dominated by these beliefs. Its sacredness is reflected in the specific name, as well as the English name. Pipal is its name in Hindi.
To Buddhists, it is known as the Bodhi Tree (’Tree of Enlightenment’). One day, around 500 B.C., a man, about 35 years old, was walking along a dusty road near the town of Gaya, northern India. For 5 years, he had been wandering the roads of northern India, searching for an answer to a question, which had bothered him for years: Why were people suffering?
Foot-sore, he sat down to rest in the shade of a huge pipal tree, determined not to leave, before he had found a satisfying answer to his question. For 49 days and nights he sat here, deep in meditation. Then he got up, convinced that he had found the answer.
From this day, he travelled about, preaching his new philosophy to a growing crowd of followers. His name was Siddharta Gautama, by his followers called The Buddha (‘The Enlightened One’). His life and teachings are described in depth on the page Religion: Buddhism.
Over the following centuries, a village named Bodhgaya sprung up around the pipal tree, beneath which Siddharta Gautama had obtained nirvana, and many Buddhist temples were built here. Today, thousands of pilgrims travel to Bodhgaya each year to revere a sacred pipal tree, which is said to be a direct descendant of the original Bodhi Tree.
In the Mahamewna Gardens in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is another large pipal tree, which, according to devotees, is a direct descendent of the original Bodhi Tree. It is said that in 236 B.C., Emperor Asoka sent the Buddhist nun Sanghamitta Maha Theri to Sri Lanka, where she presented a branch of the original Bodhi Tree to King Devanampiya Tissa, who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The king planted the branch in his Royal Park in Anuradhapura. The branch grew into a tree, later known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, which is still alive today, thus being the oldest planted tree in the world.
It is distributed at low altitudes, from the southernmost islands in Japan southwards through Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and New Guinea to extreme north-eastern Australia and some western Pacific islands.
The specific name alludes to the septic latex, which can be used externally to treat infections of the skin.
The leaves are ovate with rounded or heart-shaped base, dark green and rather thin, to 20 cm long and 12 cm wide, with a slender leaf-stalk to 12 cm long. The leaves are shed regularly. The fruits are pinkish, red, or purple with white dots, arranged in large clusters along the branches.
It is native to Indochina, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but is often planted as an ornamental tree elsewhere, for instance in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
The pictures below were all taken in Taiwan, where this species is very commonly planted in city parks and around temples.
It grows to about 20 m tall, with spreading branches and a dense crown, the trunk to 2 m in diameter. The dark green, rather rough leaves are heart-shaped with a rounded tip, to 14 cm long and 10 cm wide, arranged spirally around the twig. The underside of the leaves is pale green with prominent yellow veins. The fruit is edible, to 3 cm across, initially green, yellow or red at maturity. They are borne in thick clusters on long branches and twigs, or in the leaf axils.
It is native to Africa south of the Sahel zone, southwards to Namibia, Botswana, and north-eastern South Africa, and also to southern Arabia. At a very early stage it was brought to Egypt, from where it spread to countries along the east coast of the Mediterranean.
The sycomore fig is mentioned several times in the Bible. In those days, it was widespread in Palestine, especially in the Jordan Valley, and it was often planted along roads to provide shade.
In Luke 19:4-6, it is said about the tax collector Zacchaeus, who was a small man, that he climbed a sycomore fig to have a better view of Jesus who was passing through Jericho: “And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him: “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.”
The wood of the sycomore fig is durable and was used as timber, especially for ceiling and roof construction. In Ancient Egypt, due to its resistance, it was used to make sarcophagi, furniture, and statues, and to build ships. It was also widely utilized medicinally in Egypt. The fruits were used to treat wounds, ulcers, and bone injuries, the juice for burns and open wounds.
The sycomore fig was sacred in Egypt, regarded as a manifestation of the goddesses Isis, Nut, and Hathor. Isis was the mother goddess, an expert physician and sorceress, Nut was the sky goddess, and Hathor was sky goddess as well as goddess of the underworld. Like many other fig species, the sycomore fig contains milky latex, and this is the reason that it was connected with these important goddesses. The latex was seen as a symbol on the power of the mother goddess, transferred to the people.
This species was also sacred to the Kikuyu people of East Africa, and all sacrifices to the supreme creator Ngai were performed beneath it.
The specific name is derived from Ancient Greek sykon (‘fig’) and moron (‘mulberry’), alluding to the fruits resembling mulberries.
This species is found from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to southern China, and thence southwards through Indochina, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea to eastern Australia and many islands in the Pacific.
The fruits are edible and constitute as a major food source in Micronesia and Polynesia. Medicinally, a decoction of the leaves is used as a dressing for broken bones. Ropes are made from fibres of the bark.
The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘to dye’, alluding to the traditional usage of root and fruits to produce red and scarlet dyes.