At The Tree Center we think all trees are interesting, but we have to admit that some go beyond that into the territory of absolutely fascinating. A classic example of those are ficus trees. As well as being popular for both fruit and ornamentation these plants show enormous diversity and some unique biological features.
You’ll see ficus trees at just about any garden center, because they’re commonly grown as houseplants. The little specimens you see in pots aren’t all there is to ficus though. The name actually refers to a genus, which contains about 850 different species. The one usually sold as ficus is Ficus benjamina, also known as the Weeping Fig. In the wild this is a large tree that can reach a hundred feet tall, but it adapts well to indoor life. Its versatility sums up the whole family, too.
Ficus is the common name for the weeping fig, but fig is the common name for the ficus genus. They’re mostly tropical evergreens but there are a few deciduous species that extend north and south into warm temperate zones. Fig trees can be found in both the Old and New Worlds and they appear in a bewildering variety of forms. Most are trees, covering a wide range of sizes with the largest ones living in rain forests. Others are smaller shrubs. Then there are vines, including the notorious “strangler figs”. These germinate in a crevice or hollow in the branches of another tree, sending branches up to catch the sunlight while their roots grow down the trunk of their host to the ground. Eventually the roots envelop the host, which often dies. When it rots away the result is a hollow lattice supporting the crown of the strangler fig.
Humans have been cultivating ficus for their fruit since at least the Bronze Age; the trees are mentioned several times in the Bible, including their leaves being used by Adam and Eve when they realized they were naked. They also appear in the books of several other religions and in some places were often planted near temples. Buddha supposedly found enlightenment underneath one. But while the fig was important for religious reasons its real value lay in its fruit.
The fig’s fruit has been valued for centuries, both as a food and in traditional medicine. It’s also very interesting to biologists because it’s a fascinating example of evolution in action. The fruit itself is very unusual. It looks normal enough from the outside, with a smooth skin, but it’s anything but. In fact it’s a multiple fruit like a mulberry or pineapple, formed from hundreds of tiny flowers, but it’s inside out. When a fruit begins to develop the tree produces a hollow shell with the flowers on the inside, and a tiny hole at one end. The Chinese name for figs means “fruit without flower” but the flowers are there – they’re just invisible. Unless you’re a fig wasp, of course.