Fig trees are widespread throughout the world and can be found on all continents except Antarctica. In fact, there are over 1 000 different species of fig trees represented in the Moraceae family (figs and mulberries). Most fig trees are evergreens and provide food for various species throughout the year. The fruits (which are actually the flowers) are sweet and favoured by parrots, hornbills, monkeys and baboons, among others.
Fig trees are quite distinctive and can be easily recognized, ‘by the combination of alternate leaves, milky latex and a distinctive conical stipule that covers the apical bud. The stipule is deciduous and leaves an obvious circular or semi-circular scar on falling. Flowers of all Moraceae are tiny, inconspicuous, and clustered into often complicated inflorescences – for example a ‘fig’ – which is a hollow, vase-like receptacle containing numerous tiny flowers’ (Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa, van Wyk & van Wyk).
Although figs are a delicious treat that many people enjoy, most fig-lovers are not aware that the fig they are eating is actually not a true fruit, but a ‘syconium’ (an enclosed inflorescence where hundreds of male and female flowers grow). The sweet-tasting syconium attracts wasps (particularly the winged female wasps) which lay their eggs in the syconium. The males are wingless and will emerge from their eggs/galls before the winged female wasps. The male wasps mate with the females while they are still in the galls. Once the females hatch, the males cut open stamens and offer pollen to the females. The males also cut through the syconium to allow the females to fly away in search of another fig tree that she can use to host her eggs. Once the syconium has been opened, and the females have flown away, the syconium ripens rapidly, and attracts animals and birds that will ensure seed dispersal. By accelerating the ripening process, the wasps ensure that the fig tree completes its life cycle. This relationship between fig and wasp is known as ‘obligate mutualism,’ whereby both the wasp and the fig tree depend on each other for their own survival. In other words, if the wasp didn’t have the fig trees, and the fig trees didn’t have the wasps, their survival would be compromised. Furthermore, pollinator wasps are usually host specific, whereby only a certain species of wasp can pollinate a certain species of fig.
Here at Singita Kruger National Park, various fig trees can be found on the N’wanetsi concession. Here are three of the more prominent species, along with a bit of information about each one:
Large-leaved rock fig (Photo by Jacques Briam)
Common wild fig (Photo by Brian Rode)
Sycamore fig (Photo by Brian Rode)
– Large-leaved rock fig (Ficus abutilifolia)
o Generally found on or near rocky terrain/outcrops and along water bodies.
o The roots can extend very far underground (up to 60m) in search of water.
o One of the few rock-splitting figs. The roots of this tree often grow through the cracks in
rocks. As the roots grow bigger and bigger they can, on occasion, cause the rock to split
– Common wild fig (Ficus burkei (prev Ficus thonningii))
o Distribution of this tree has significantly increased due to planting/agriculture.
o Used for shade on many farms throughout South Africa due to dense foliage.
o Often use established trees as a prop, which they utilize in order to gain access to sunlight.
As the fig grows larger it may surround the trunk of the ‘host’ tree and in the process it may
smother it, hence its other name, the Strangler Fig.
– Sycamore fig (Ficus sycamorus)
o Widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and even occurs in some parts of the Middle
o The syconiums (fruits) grow in clusters on the bark.
o The Sycamore Fig was mentioned several times in the Bible.
Fruit-eating bats commonly disperse the seeds in their excrement, and seedlings often start out as epiphytes (plants that gain their nourishment and moisture requirements from the air) on branches high in the rain-soaked canopy.
All of the fig trees mentioned above have ‘fruits’ that are edible to people, although they are not as sweet and palatable as those that are cultivated for human consumption, and are often infested with worms and wasp larvae. Fig trees also have milky latex or sap that many Africans cook up to form a sticky substance that they can use as birdlime by strategically placing it on branches in order to trap small birds.