FigFig — Ficus is a genus of about 800 species of woody trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes, and hemi-epiphytes in the family Moraceae. Collectively known as figs, they are native throughout the tropics with a few species extending into the warm temperate zone. The so-called Common Fig (F. carica) is a temperate species from the Middle East and southern Europe, which has been widely cultivated from ancient times for its fruit, also referred to as figs. The fruit of most other species are also edible though they are usually of only local economic importance or eaten as bushfood. However, they are extremely important food resources for wildlife. Figs are also of paramount cultural importance throughout the tropics, both as objects of worship and for their many practical uses. Among the more famous species are the Sacred Fig tree (Peepul, Bodhi, Bo, or Po, Ficus religiosa) and the Banyan Fig (Ficus benghalensis). The oldest living plant of known planting date is a Ficus regiliosa tree known as the Sri Maha Bodhi planted in the temple at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka by King Tissa in 288 BC. The Common Fig tree (Ficus carica) is the first plant cited in the Bible. In Genesis 3:7 is described how Adam and Eva cover themselves with fig leaves when they discover that they are naked. The fig fruit is also included in the list of food found in the Promised Land, according to the Thorah (Deut. 8). They are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates (representing the honey).

Figs occupy a wide variety of ecological niches. Take, for example, the Common Fig, a small temperate deciduous tree whose fingered fig leaf is well-known in art and iconography; or the Weeping Fig (perhaps better renamed the “Shopping Mall Fig”, F. benjamina) a hemi-epiphyte with thin tough leaves on pendulous stalks adapted to its rain forest habitat; or the Creeping Fig (F. pumila), a vine whose small, hard leaves form a dense carpet of foliage over rocks or garden walls. Moreover, figs with different plant habits have undergone adaptive radiation in different biogeographic regions, often leading to very high levels of alpha diversity. In the tropics, it is quite common to find that Ficus is the most species-rich plant genus in a particular forest. In Asia as many as 70 or more species can co-exist.

Although identifying many of the species can be difficult, figs as a group are relatively easy to recognize. Often the presence of aerial roots or the general Gestalt of the plant will give them away. Their fruit are also distinct. The fig fruit is in fact an enclosed inflorescence, sometimes referred to as a syconium, an urn-like structure lined on the inside with the fig’s tiny flowers. The unique fig pollination system, involving tiny, highly specific wasps, know as fig wasps that enter these closed inflorescences to both pollinate and lay their own eggs, has been a constant source of inspiration and wonder to biologists. Finally, there are three vegetative traits that together are unique to figs. All figs possess a white to yellowish sap (latex), some in copious quantities; the twig has paired stipules or a circular stipule scar if the stipules have fallen off; and the lateral veins at the base of the leaf are steep, that is they form a tighter angle with the midrib than the other lateral veins, a feature referred to as a “tri-veined”.

Unfortunately, there are no unambiguous older fossils of Ficus. However, current molecular clock estimates indicate that Ficus is a relatively ancient genus being at least 60 million years old, and possibly as old as 80 million years. The main radiation of extant species, however, may have taken place more recently, between 20 and 40 million years ago.

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