Décor & Gardening

Tree of the week – Ficus sycomorus – the sycamore fig

Tree of the week – Ficus sycomorus – the sycamore fig

The beautiful Sycamore Fig, or Mulberry-fig – the name is derived from the Greek ‘Syca-Morus’ which means Mulberry fig – is an ancient genus going back at least 60 million years.

The species favours riverine areas, although can sometimes be spotted in woodland areas, and is scattered all over Africa, most commonly south of the Sahara, although it has been naturalised in parts of Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. They grow to great heights, sometimes 15 meters or more, with a yellow tint to their bark and fluted trunk.

They are home to – and an abundant food source for – a number of birds and animals, such as fruit bats, monkeys and baboons. They are an especial favourite of green pigeons, loeries, barbets, hornbills and brown-headed parrots, and whatever fruit falls to the floor is loved by warthogs and a number of different species of buck. Their leaves are favoured by certain caterpillars and their wood by certain beetles (there are a few, but this story will go on too long if I name everyone).

Their claim to fame though, is a unique pollination trick, which involves a special relationship with a certain species of wasp. Called a fig wasp, it is from the Agaonidae family, and each tree has a wasp distinctive to its species. This relationship is both symbiotic and mutualistic, tree and wasp need each other to survive, as well as both being beneficial to the other. As the figs ripen, they exude a chemical which in turn attracts the tiny little female wasp, who will then lay her eggs inside the fruit, concurrently pollinating the internal flower.

Once the eggs hatch, the male (wingless) and female wasps will mate, and the males will burrow a hole out of the fruit from which the female can escape, stimulated by the oxygen in the air. The female will then move off to search for another fig to start the whole process over again, carrying pollen from the previous tree on her body. No dawdling, as many of these delicate little creatures have a very short life span, in the region of only nine hours.

The males do not survive long outside the fig.

See, trees are simply marvellous!

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