Botanic Notables: Fig Stories

Botanic Notables: Fig Stories

September 14, 2012
Photo by: Rachel Cellinese, feat. Erin Dabbs at the Ficus macrophylla San Diego's Balboa Park

I love everything about figs. They are the fruit of the season, the fruit about which I am always happy to expound. The tree's life cycle is one of my favorites—a thrilling tale of life, death, sex, and captivity—and they're impossible to avoid in Southern California, particularly now. Ficus trees are a leitmotif in the landscape, and their fruits have been ripening in the late summer heat. Last week I helped a friend harvest Black Mission figs in the Silver Lake hills (the figs were bound for a restaurant in Venice, where they're named "Jason's Figs" on the menu), and the next day I made Calimyrna jam with a landscape designer who is often paid in fruit. 

That was August. I was pleased to discover the fig theme continue into September, when a friend photographed Balboa Park's Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla), in San Diego. It's a strangler fig, native to Australia, whose growth often begins in the canopy of a rainforest host tree. Epiphytic germination isn't a requirement, though—as its immense buttress roots would suggest, this F. macrophylla has done quite well, growing from the ground up. The photographer included her companion in the shot, for scale reference.

The tree grows just beyond the San Diego Natural History Museum, a de facto surveyor and register of the local ficus population. According to the Museum, the tree is approximately 102 years old, and one of the largest trees (in girth) in California, a superlative status confirmed with an entry in the state's Registry of Big Trees. It is 80 feet tall, 42 feet in girth, and its canopy spreads 145 feet. In 1914, the 5-year-old tree was one of many flora planted at Balboa Park in preparation for the city's exposition the following year. Since then, it's been a place for San Diego to picnic & play (efforts have been taken to protect the tree at times, allowing it to recover from so much attention).

If you've kept reading for the aforementioned thriller, here we go. Naturally, ficus fruits are preceded by ficus flowers, but picture a fig tree. Where are the flowers? Inside the fig. Fig fruits are actually aggregate fruits—tiny bits of sweet flesh—developed from hundreds of tiny flowers & ovaries that are enclosed within the fig itself. And how are the flowers pollinated? Through a small hole (ostiole) at the tip of the fig that provides passage for symbiotic wasps that pollinate the flowers. A female lays her eggs in the fruit (fortunately, figs that are good for a wasp's egg, are generally not the edible varieties), which provide a safe & nutritious  place for the offspring. The life cycle of the male fig wasp is brief and base: upon hatching from the gall, he copulates with the females. The female wasp has wings and good vision; the male has neither. He is all but blind, and bound to the interior of the fig. His final act is to eat a hole through which the female will escape. His function thus performed, he dies in the fig. 

I love everything about figs: the hidden flowers, the hospitable buttress roots, the wasps and their ancient tale of sacrifice & symbiosis. It all makes their sweet fruits that much sweeter.