10 Fascinating Fig Facts
Fig trees hold more importance in the world than simply producing fruit. They have an extensive background that weaves its way through several different cultures and insect life cycles. Though fig trees have ties to much of our identity, you might be wondering what exactly these trees are and what they do. We have the inside scoop on everything fig-related.
The following is an excerpt from Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan. It has been adapted for the web.
Here are 10 Fascinating Fig Facts to pique your interest:
- There are over 750 known Ficus species in the world, native all across the globe.
- Nearly every species of fig tree is pollinated by its own distinct species of fig wasp, each a fascinating example of co-evolution.
- Although the average female fig wasp is less than two millimeters long, she must often travel tens of kilometers in less than 48 hours to lay her eggs in another fig—a truly heroic journey!
- Fig trees are keystone species in many rainforests, producing fruit year round that are important food sources for thousands of animal species from bats to monkeys to birds.
- Fig tree flowers are actually hidden inside the fruit, which led many early cultures to believe the plants to be flowerless.
- Figs have played prominent roles in every major modern religion, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
- Some fig species are trees, others are vines, shrubs, and even epiphytes.
- Female rhinoceros hornbills are sealed into the hollow trunks of trees to brood by their male partners, who also deliver them figs to eat through narrow crevices.
- Strangler figs grow their roots downward from the tops of their host trees ultimately killing and replacing them.
- A banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) can resemble a small forest thanks to the false trunks grown from its aerial prop roots. The largest one on record is growing in India and spans more than four acres.
Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge
Ficus species exemplify variation—that key trait Wallace identified as enabling evolution. And so they should. Every day for the past 80 million years, fig trees around the world have been combining their DNA and packing it into trillions upon trillions of seeds. Thus, they have tested a staggering number of genetic combinations, each one an experiment
in the struggle for existence. It’s a struggle fig trees make look easy.
Not only did these plants survive the cataclysm that saw off the giant dinosaurs and many other species. They flourished. As they spread around the globe, they formed hundreds of new species and became the most varied group of plants on the planet. The side effects have been profound. These plants fed our pre-human ancestors and offered other gifts to the creators of the first great civilisations. Our predecessors rewarded these trees with roles in some of the oldest of our stories.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all agree, for instance, that figs trees have been part of the human tale since Day One. In the creation story these three religions share, a fig tree was present in the Garden of Eden along with the first people, whom English speakers call Adam and Eve. God had given the couple all they needed and the freedom to do what they liked, but with one proviso—they must not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Western Europe, we are often told that this fruit was an apple. However, this may simply be because of the Latin bibles that began to spread in the Middle Ages—although they sound different, the Latin nouns for an apple and evil are the same: malum. Some Jewish rabbis have concluded that the forbidden fruit was in fact a fig. It was a fig that Michelangelo portrayed when he painted the scene on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in about 1510.
The story says Eve ignored God’s rule and swallowed the fruit. Adam followed suit. They were suddenly aware of their nudity. According to the book of Genesis: ‘The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’ A fig tree had come to the rescue, but Adam and Eve’s lack of clothes was the least of their problems. God banished them from the Garden of Eden, so preventing them from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life and gaining immortality. This, these three religions agree, is where all of our promise and our problems began.
Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, I heard the story of Adam and Eve at a very young age. Decades later, and after years of studying the biology of fig trees, the story took on new meaning when I started to learn how fig trees were central to other creation stories too. I learned about Mithra, a Persian deity and ‘Judge of Souls’. Some versions of his story say he was born out of a rock beneath a sacred fig tree. Naked and hungry, Mithra hid himself from the howling wind in the branches of the tree, ate figs for his first meal and made himself garments from fig leaves. Then I heard about creation stories from thousands of kilometres away in Africa’s Congo Basin. They describe how the first hunter was born from a species of fig tree. Cold and naked, he peeled the tree’s bark away and fashioned clothing from it to protect himself.
It may sound uncomfortable but barkcloth is a real thing. Cultures in Africa, Asia and South America have independently worked out how to turn the bark of local fig trees into a malleable material they could wear or write on. People in Uganda still produce cloth from the bark of fig trees. The United Nations has classified the process they use as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’. Researchers and designers around the world now put the material to new uses, in everything from furniture and high fashion to yachts, cars and aircraft.
Figs feature in other origins too. The Kikuyu people of Kenya have a grove of sacred fig trees at the centre of their creation story. A story from Indonesia describes how two gods formed the first couple from a fig tree, carving horizontal slices of wood to create the woman and vertical slices for the man. A myth told by the Kutia Kondh people in Odisha, India, says the goddess creator Nirantali formed the first human’s tongue from the ever-quivering leaf of the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa). Another story says Nirantali provided the first people with seeds of another fig species (Ficus benghalensis) to plant. The resulting trees provided shade with their thick leaves and, on Nirantali’s orders, also fed the first people with their milky latex until grain appeared in the world.
Ficus species don’t only feature in creation stories. They also represent gods and serve as abodes for spirits. They can be symbols of divine sustenance or ethereal bridges that link heaven and earth. In East Africa, Maasai people tell stories that say when the earth and the sky became separated, all that connected them was a sacred fig tree. It was via this tree’s aerial roots that the Maasai god provided cattle to the people. Among the Akan people of Ghana, on the other side of the continent, one of the first traditional duties of the ohemaa—a female ruler also called a queenmother—was to create a sacred place by planting a fig tree. Figs are also cosmic trees in Candomblé, a religion that originated in northeastern Brazil when slaves taken there from West Africa found fig trees just as impressive as the sacred figs from which they had been separated.
In Hong Kong, where people say Ficus microcarpa fig trees are home to spirits, two of these trees have become famous as ‘wishing trees’. For many years, people would come to throw oranges into the trees’ crowns. They had written their wishes on strips of crimson paper, which they attached to the oranges with string. If a wishing tree’s branch caught hold of the missile, their desires could dangle and be blown by a breeze up to heaven. But, in 2005, when the weight of all those wishes caused a branch to break off and injure a man and a child, the government banned the practice.
Far away on the Indonesian island Sumatra, the Batak people have a fig for their ‘world tree’. This is a mythical Ficus benjamina, the same species whose leaves I dusted as a child. The Batak say their tree grows among the stars and that its roots reach down to earth. Mortals can clamber up them to reach heaven. On the island of Borneo, the Iban and other indigenous peoples traditionally prohibit the cutting of strangler figs because spirits dwell among their roots. In Myanmar, for a millennium before Buddhism became the main religion, people worshipped spirits called ‘nats’ including Nyaung Bin, an old man who lives in a fig tree. In the Philippines, fig trees are said to be home to supernatural beings such as giant tree demons, goblins and the half-human, half-horse tikbalang.
To the northeast, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, folk stories feature short, red-haired spirits called kijimuna that inhabit fig trees. Far to the south, in Timor-Leste, the Sun god Upulevo is said to have settled on a fig tree to impregnate his wife, the Mother Earth. In the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, people consider fig trees to be an abode of crocodile spirits. Meanwhile, in Australia, aboriginal communities warn of the yara-ma-yha-who, a blood-sucking manlike creature that lives in fig trees and preys on unwary travellers. And on the Pacific Ocean island of Guam, thousands of kilometres from the nearest sizeable land mass, ancestral spirits called taotaomonas are said to live among the roots of fig trees.
These are just snapshots. There are bigger, better and much more profound stories to tell. Search for these stories and you will find them across a great swathe of the planet. They are ancient stories. They come from a time when nature formed the foundation of faith, and when science had yet to ask its first questions. What science has since shown is that there are good reasons for the preponderance of fig trees in diverse religions. This points to lessons for our modern world, and to potential bridges between sceptical and romantic minds.
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