Shawnee News-Star Gardening Wednesday Sept. 19 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg The world's largest tree canopy spreads over 5 acres.   The oval leaves are leathery, very green and shiny. The tree trunk column is actually hollow but multiple woody trunks and prop roots support the branches and leaves.   The many species can be found in India, […]

Shawnee News-Star Gardening Wednesday Sept. 19 2018

Linda's Figs

Becky Emerson Carlberg

The world's largest tree canopy spreads over 5 acres.   The oval leaves are leathery, very green and shiny. The tree trunk column is actually hollow but multiple woody trunks and prop roots support the branches and leaves.   The many species can be found in India, Australia, Central and South America, the Caribbean Islands and Florida.   Care to guess the tree?   The Strangler Fig.   This tree in the mulberry family has an unusual way of starting life.

In the wild, fig seeds have little hope of germinating on a forest floor with minimal sunlight and immense competition.  They have figured out another way to survive.

The small fig seed (the size of a sesame seed) lodges in a branch or piece of bark at the top of another tree, courtesy of a fig-loving bird.   That should be the end of the seed, but not so fast.   Using available water and light, the seed actually germinates and sends roots down alongside the host tree trunk until the roots hit soil.   The aerial roots begin to enlarge and toughen, sending out branches that produce leaves. The weight of the epiphyte crushes the host tree.   An epiphyte is a non-parasitic plant (orchids, bromeliads, many ferns) that grows on another plant. In this case, the strangler fig leaves crowd out the host leaves in their quest for sunlight and the fig roots aggressively reach for nutrients and water, overtaking the host root system.   The poor host tree eventually gives up the ghost. The fig takes over its lignin skeleton to use as a support system.   Prop roots continue to issue forth from the fig branches, allowing the multi-trunked 'tree' to slowly spread.

Stranger yet, the air roots of the fig tree harbor endophytes.   These bacteria or fungi live within the root tissues without causing harm.   The much tinier organisms help fix nitrogen and provide disease resistance.   In turn, the fig offers them protection, food and water.  Legions of insects, animals and other wildlife seek food and cover inside the expansive fig canopy and birds nest within the branches and foliage. In tropical countries, the large fig trees are called Banyan trees.

'The Fig and the Wasp' was an article published in the Smithsonian magazine April 2017.   Between 2008 and 2010, the treetop biologist, Yoav Bar-Ness, worked on the Landmark Trees of India project.   He recorded sizes of the largest Banyans (Ficus benghalensis).   All fig species have the genus name Ficus.   The largest tree discovered was Thimmamma Marrimanu.   The enormous fig with 4,000 gnarly and straight prop roots has been estimated to be over 550 years old. A small temple is beneath the tree.  The Banyan is the national tree of India. For seven days Buddha pondered deep thoughts under a Banyan tree.

Edible figs have been cultivated for thousands of years.   Figs needs tiny wasps to pollinate their flowers.   The wasps need the figs for protection, food and reproduction.   Fig stems produce tough membranous sacs that contain inward facing flowers. The flowers inside each sac produce a scent which attracts a female wasp specific for that fig species.   She crawls inside through a tiny hole, lays her eggs and dies.   Probably from exhaustion.

The eggs hatch into wasps that mate inside the sac.   No judgment here.   While the males chew a tunnel through the thick skin, the females collect pollen from the flowers.   Leaving the males in pollen dust, the females exit out the tunnel and fly to other fig plants of the same species.   The cycle continues.  This efficient pollination system has created 850 species of figs and most require their own species of pollinator wasp.

Three horticultural types of figs are now grown in home gardens and commercial farms: Smyrna, White San Pedro and Common (Ficus carica).   Common figs (cultivars such as Black Mission and Brown Turkey) produce all female flowers that develop fruit without the aid of fig wasps. Smyrnas and San Pedros eventually need their wasps.

What happens to the miniscule wasp bodies still inside their fruit casket?   Ficin takes care of them.   Ficin is an enzyme that breaks protein down into amino acids.   Figs produce ample amounts of ficin.   Fresh figs can be used as a meat tenderizer or digestive aid.

Figs taste great and Fig Newtons (invented in 1891) just wouldn't be the same without them.   Not only are the fruits high in fiber but have good amounts of calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, potassium, and vitamins B6 and K.   Figs have been eaten for over 13,000 years.   Granted, most of those people are dead, but not from eating figs.

My common fig tree nearly perished this last winter, but friend Linda has healthy trees with fruit just beginning to ripen. My photo is of her amazing figs.   One type produces small creamy white fruit sweet as candy.  How good is that!