Native Figs (Part 16)

Ficus macrophylla [Lord Howe Island Fig] sml.jpg

Lord Howe Island Fig, Sydney Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, I am so glad that all of them did not suddenly fall dead!

Names

Australia is home to more than forty native species of Ficus (F.), or figs, all of which have edible, but not always palatable, fruit. These include common or well-known species such as the impressive buttressed Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla), the related aerial-rooted Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa), the rainforest strangler fig (F. watkinsiana), the Top End's white fig or banyan (F. virens), the trunk-fruiting cluster fig (F. racemosa), a number of sandpaper figs, of which the most common are the creek sandpaper (F. coronata) and the sweet sandpaper (F. opposita), and the inland desert or rock fig (F. platypoda). There is also the uncommon Top End peach-leaved fig (F. coronulata), among other uncommon subspecies.

Many introduced species of figs, such as the common fruit fig (F. caria), the weeping fig (F. benjamina), the fiddle-leaf fig (F. lyrata) and the wall creeping fig (F. pumila), are grown as ornamentals throughout Australia and will not be covered here. All introduced species also have edible fruit, however, especially F. caria, the commercial variety available in markets and shops across the country.

Habitat and Range

Australian figs are water-lovers by nature, and will always be found near a permanent water source - oceans, lakes, rivers, billabongs or underground springs. Many major species, such as Moreton Bay, Port Jackson, strangler, white and cluster figs will grow into truly monstrous trees sometimes exceeding 50 m in height with 30 m circumference canopies, under which virtually nothing can grow. The sandpaper figs are typically much smaller, usually between 2 to 10 metres, but are also common along creeks, rivers, gullies and ravines the length of the eastern coast of Australia. Desert figs are common to rock outcrops, cliffs and escarpments away from fire zones throughout the interior, north-west and Queensland coast, and almost always occupy a location where there is a permanent underground water source. Many native species are prominent in the tropics, such as the Top End and Cape York, and along the Great Dividing Range, becoming less frequent in distribution the further south one travels to about the Gippsland region of eastern Victoria.

Figure 1. Distribution of Ficus (all species) across the continent. This map includes the introduced European/Middle Eastern common fig (F. caria), grown commercially in southern SA, VIC and WA. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus spp Distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Often large trees, 10+ metres in height; 1-3 metres for sandpaper figs
  • Large, buttressed bases
  • Aerial roots (except sandpaper figs)
  • Spear-tip shaped leathery leaves; can be large (Moreton Bay, Port Stephens and sandpaper figs), or smaller (cluster fig)
  • Leaves may feel like sandpaper (sandpaper fig only)
  • Broken leaves and branches exude an irritating white latex sap
  • Fruits in bunches at the end of each branch or along the trunk and boughs
  • Fruits are green, yellow or pink unripe, and ripen to a deep red or black
  • Fruits contain hundreds of tiny seeds and internal flowers
  • Fruits may contain small pollinator wasps
  • Fruits attractive to bats, birds and native marsupials
Tropical and subtropical native figs such as the Moreton Bay, Port Jackson, white and strangler are generally easily identified due to their immense buttressed or aerial-rooted main trunks (see also header image above, which is the multi-trunked Lord Howe Island subspecies of F. macrophylla).

Figure 2. The burgeoning canopy and impressive buttress of a Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla) introduced to Santa Clara, California. Wikimedia Commons.
Ficus macrophylla [Moreton Bay Fig - Buttress - Wikimedia - Santa Barbara California].jpg


Figure 3. Splays of aerial roots from a Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa). Wikipedia.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Trunk & aerial roots - Wikipedia - Aliab].jpg


Figure 4. The fortified buttress of a rainforest strangler fig (F. watkinsiana). Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus watkinsiana [Strangler - Buttress - ATLAS - F.M. Bailey 2020].jpeg


Figure 5. White figs (F. virens) displaying their multi-trunks and aerial roots at Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. The leaves distinguish this tree from the Lord Howe Island fig. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Aerial Roots - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


These rainforest monsters also tend to have thick leathery leaves and clusters of fruit, most of which are green or pink when unripe and ripen to a vivid red, purple or black. The fruit of these figs is always eagerly sought out by many species of birds, possums, and other nocturnal tree-climbing marsupials. They are a favourite of flying fox colonies, who will often fly for kilometres to feast nightly on fruiting trees.

Figure 6. Unripe fruit and glossy, leathery leaves of a Moreton Bay fig (F. macrophylla; the Lord Howe Island fig is identical). New leaves on this species are a copper colour. This species fruit turn red when ripe. This tree had hundreds of these fruit clusters on it. Sydney Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus macrophylla [Large-leaf Fig - Fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 7. Foliage of the Port Jackson fig (F. rubiginosa). This species is very similar to the Moreton Bay fig above (figure 6), differing primarily because of its rusty-undersided leaves. Cabarita Wharf. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Foliage] sml.jpg


Figure 8. Foliage of the white fig (F. virens). Note the very prominent white leaf veins for this species. Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Foliage - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 9. White fig (F. virens) fruits along the outer branches near the leaf stems. Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Fruit & foliage - Arcadia, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 10. Fallen ripe fruit of the strangler fig. The fruit of these figs has a small 'nipple' at the tip. Unlike the other tropical species, whose trunks generally hang low and can be easily climbed for picking, strangler figs cannot be easily climbed and can exceed 50 m in height due to the fact they start life up in the boughs of a host tree they will strangle to death. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus watkinsiana [Strangler - Fruit - ATLAS - P. Woodall 2020].jpeg


Cluster figs are somewhat smaller than the rain forest giants covered above, usually reaching between 10-20 metres in height. They are distinctive in that, like their distant cousin the sycamore fig of the Mediterranean and Middle East, they will fruit prolifically from clusters which emerge from the main trunk and boughs.

Figure 11. Cluster fig (F. racemosa) trunk, displaying its signature fruit clusters. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus racemosa [Cluster Fig - Trunk & Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 12. Cluster fig fruit in varying stages of ripeness. Note the small size of the leaves of the cluster fig (top and right). Atlas of Living Australia. © I. Daniels, 2017.
Ficus racemosa [Cluster Fig - Fruit - ATLAS - I. Daniels 2017].jpeg


The sandpaper figs are so-named because of their distinctive, sandpaper-textured leaves. Sandpaper figs generally have small fruits about 1-2 cm long which are usually furry. Some species of these figs, similar to the cluster fig, will fruit prolifically from their main trunk and major boughs when they become older.

Figure 13. From a distance, the creek sandpaper fig (F. coronata) is an unassuming small tree, usually 1.5 to 3 m. Mt. Annan Botanical Gardens. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus coronata [Sandpaper Fig - Tree - Mt Annan] sml.jpg


Figure 14. Foliage and unripe fruit (foreground, blurry) on a creek sandpaper fig. Notice the rough, sandpaper-like dimples on the leaves. It really does feel like sandpaper. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus coronata [Sandpaper Fig - Leaves & unripe fruit - Hornsby Blue Gum Track] sml.jpg


Figure 15. Ripe fruit on a creek sandpaper fig. Fruit has a prominent 'crown' feature at the tip, hence the name 'coronata'. Atlas of Living Australia. © D. Woods, 1998.
Ficus coronata [Creek Sandpaper - Fruit - ATLAS - D. Wood 1998].jpeg


Figure 16. Some older specimens of the creek sandpaper fig may exhibit fruit clustering (cauliflory) on the trunk. Wikipedia.
Ficus coronata [Trunk Fruits cauliflory - Wikipedia - Peter Woodard 2020].jpg


Figure 17. The sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita) looks very similar to its southern cousin, being found mostly along the Queensland coast. Fruits of this species lack the 'crown' feature at the tip of the fruit. Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus opposita [Foliage - Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


The desert or rock fig is almost always found occupying impossible rock faces, outcrops or escarpments. It can be common on the central Queensland coast as well as inland, especially in the south-western parts of the Northern Territory, especially at Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the MacDonnell ranges.

Figure 18. An example of the buttress roots of a desert fig (F. platypoda) occupying an impossible location . Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Trunk - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 19. Foliage and unripe fruit clusters of an established desert fig. Unripe fruit is typically yellow, turning red. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Leaves & Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 20. Ripe and unripe fruit of the desert fig. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ficus platypoda [Desert Fig - Fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Uses

Native figs fruit prolifically, often two or three times per year, and have long seasons of several months fruit bearing, or as seasonal rain permits in the case of the desert figs. Because of their generally large size, trees can bear thousands of fruit, some of which may be inaccessible to humans due to the height of the tree (this is especially true of strangler figs).

Fruits may be eaten raw, dried or cooked into jams, preserves or pastries. Ripe figs will fall off into the hand when gently tugged and should feel soft and squishy; avoid any fruit that feels hard to the touch (unripe) or has begun to rot. Most of the native figs have hundreds, if not thousands, of dry, mealy seeds and pollen towards the centre of each fruit which are often unpleasant to eat and can be spat out or removed prior to tasting. I personally just endure. Some varieties, such as the strangler fig and sweet sandpaper fig, taste better than others. Moreton Bay and Port Jackson figs I have tried have been pleasant, albeit with a dry, mealy aftertaste from the seed and pollen mass. You may need to fight fruit bats for ripe, in-season figs; for this reason, harvesting figs is best done during the day when fruit bats are asleep elsewhere.

Figure 21. What to expect inside a Port Jackson (F. rubiginosa) fig. Cabarita Wharf. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus rubiginosa [Port Jackson Fig - Fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 22. What to expect inside a white fig (F. virens). Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [Old Fruit - Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


Figure 23. What to expect inside a sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita). Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus opposita [Cut Fruit - Flagstaff Hill Lookout, Bowen, 2022] sml.jpg


Due to the symbiotic relationship almost all figs have with certain species of tiny pollinator and non-pollinator wasps, it is possible to find dead wasps and/or their grubs inside both ripe and unripe fruit. A key sign of wasp activity will be a small hole (or several), about the width of a full stop, bored straight through the skin of the fig fruit, from the inside, by the female as she emerges in search of another fig to crawl into and lay her eggs. Male wasps spend their entire life cycle inside the fig and never see the light of day. If the prospect of eating small wasps or grubs disturbs you, halve all fruit and inspect prior to consumption. Note that natural enzymes in the fig fruit will completely dissolve the wasps who have crawled into fruit, laid their eggs and then died. The wasps and their grubs are perfectly safe to eat (inadvertently!) and are not known to harbour any diseases harmful to humans.

Many of the First Nations of Australia would grind dried fig fruits, seeds, wasps and all, into a paste for long-term food storage. The paste can be eaten as is, or mixed with other seed or grain flours to make a dense johnny-cake-like bread.

In some Asian cultures, such as southern Chinese, Thai and Cambodian, the reddish new season leaf growth of species like the white fig (F. virens) was cooked as a vegetable in soups and curries. I am not certain if this process may be copied for other species of fig such as the Moreton Bay or Port Jackson figs (see caution below). Leaves of all species of sandpaper fig can be used to smooth the surfaces of wooden objects, and have been used for this purpose for thousands of years by First Nations people.

Figure 24. Edible new growth on a white fig (F. virens). It should be cooked prior to consumption. Arcadia, Magnetic Island. © JPM, 2022.
Ficus virens [New Foliage 3 - Arcadia, Magnetic Island, 2022] sml.jpg


In some places of the world, especially Nagaland, India, the aerial roots of fig trees are harnessed, trained and cultivated to form living bridges over rivers and chasms.

Figure 25. Living fig root bridges. Nongriat village, Meghalaya. Flickr. © A. U. Bose, n.d.
Ficus [Living Bridge - Flickr - A. U. Bose].jpg


Caution!

The white sap (latex) of all figs is a major topical irritant due to the high levels of toxic alkaloids and should never be taken internally. When picking figs, avoid unnecessarily breaking leaves and branches, and avoid getting latex from the fruit stem on your skin or in your eyes. New season growth seems to have lower toxicity latex, hence leaf use by some cultures for some species of fig. The latex of one Indian species of fig (F. elastica) has been experimented with for commercial rubber production without much success.

With that said, the crushed leaves and latex of the sweet sandpaper fig (F. opposita) is known to remove fungal skin infections such as tinea or ringworm. Latex from other species is known to have anti-cancer and antibacterial properties and thus make it useful for topically treating warts, corns, skin cancers as well as cuts and abrasions (do not apply to healthy skin). As with all medicinal applications of Australian bush foods, please do your due diligence and consult with First Nations or other Australian herbal specialists before utilising fig latex as a topical remedy for any condition.
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