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Fascinating Figs

One of my stops on the Atherton Tableland was at Yungaburra, to see the famous Curtain Fig (a section of which is pictured below). While the premature death and fall of the host tree made this ficus particularly interesting, all figs are pretty intriguing.

Ficus (the botanic name for figs) is a group of about 900 species of trees, shrubs, and vines. Every single species of fig can only be pollinated by a specific species of fig wasp. As a result, there are about 900 species of fig wasp, one for every species of fig. Neither the wasp nor the fig can survive without its precise partner. As a result, when a country wants to grow a specific type of fig (say, California growing Mediterranean figs), the wasps have to be imported, too.

• The figs we eat are from the common fig, Ficus carica. The fig itself is actually not a fruit, but is rather a fleshy receptacle called a syconium, which contains hundreds of male and female flowers.

• Many species of tropical figs are known as stranglers. A sticky seed deposited in a high branch by a bird, bat, or animal sprouts. Roots soon descend to the ground, creating a latticework that encases the trunk of the host tree. The host is usually killed, but even if it isn’t, because it is much older than the fig (having been full grown when the fig sprouted), it usually dies before the fig. The huge cylinder of roots left behind makes it look as if the fig has a trunk. The hollow “trunks” also provide shelter and breeding sites for many of the forest’s creatures.

• Of the approximately 150 species of New World figs, most (but not all) are stranglers.

• Figs bear fruit all year. This steady supply of fruit provides an important resource for animals during times of food shortage. If figs were to be removed from the forest or the fig wasps vanished, there would almost certainly be a dramatic reduction in animal life.
Yungaburra Curtain Fig

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