BOB 2008 - Ben Gutierrez
Ficus, aka Fig Trees
The plant genus Ficus belongs to the family Moracea and comprises roughly 850 species. The common name for Ficus is figs, a term that refers to the trees themselves and the "fruit" that they bear. Ficus fruits are actually not fruits. They are enclosed inflorescences more specifically known as synconium. If you break open a fig (synconium), you will find hundreds of tiny flowers lining the inside wall. Some ficus are monoecious, meaning that all the flowers of a single fig will be either male or female. Other ficus are dioecious, meaning that each fig contains both male and female flowers. These flowers are pollinated by a highly specialized group of wasps called fig wasps. Fig wasps are extremely small because they spend their entire lives either inside of a fig or searching for a fig to enter and pollinate. Females do the pollinating, whereas males do the mating. Males spend the entirey of their short lives inside of the fig that they are born in. As soon as a male hatches, he mates with a female, then digs a tunnel out of the fig so that females can escape. Males have much smaller wings and cannot sustain themselves outside of the fig, so they die soon after escaping to freedom.

Most of the world's ficus species are found in the tropics, although a few species extend to semi-warm temperate climates. One such species, native to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, is Ficus carica, also known as the Common Fig. F carica is the fig species that humans cultivate for food, and it is the species of fig mentioned in the Bible. Other famous ficus species include Ficus religiosa, also known as the Bodhi Tree, and Ficus benghalensis, the Banyan Tree. Fig trees are revered in many world religions. The fig tree is one of the two sacred trees of Islam, and F. religiosa is the tree that the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment under, as well as the species of Ashvastha, the "world tree" of Hinduism.

In addition to playing a prominent religious role for humans, many fig trees are also keystone species in rainforest ecosystems, providing an important food source for frugivores such as birds, bats, monkeys, langurs, and mangabeys. Ficus do not play such a benevolent role in regards to their fellow plants though. Ficus species take many forms, such as trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes, and hemi-epiphytes, but one of the best known types of ficus are the strangling figs. These ficus germinate in the crowns of host trees, then extend roots to the ground which will eventually choke the host tree to death. Once the host tree decays and the parasitic ficus begins to lose structural support, it will send down roots from its branches, which will eventually thicken to become as large as tree trunks. These visually distinct roots are called pillar roots or aerial roots, and they are particularly prominent in the case of the Banyan Tree (top left).
top left: a Banyan Tree in Florida (
top right: a Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya temple in India (
bottom left: a huge strangling fig free near Niah Caves
bottom right: a sapling strangling fig along the canopy walkway at Maliau. Maybe someday it will grow to be as large as the tree to the left.

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