Ficus (2007)

PhotoBy Pam Schnebelen (April 2007)

Ficus is a large genus of woody trees, shrubs and vines in the family Moraceae. For those of us who collect plants with weird and unusual shapes, these plants are wonderful subjects. They grow quickly and respond well to pruning and shaping. Easy to propagate from seed and by stem and root cuttings, these plants present great bonsai opportunities.

At this month’s meeting, I will bring a group of 3-year-old seedlings, each of which I have whacked and wired in a different way. So that you can play with creating your own bonsai, I will also bring several rooted cuttings for attendance prizes. And we will pass along cuttings that we take.

Ficus plants have an unusual and interesting sex life. They produce figs, a specialized flower structure that has flowers on its inner surface. The plants can be hermaphroditic (containing both male and female parts), but these hermaphroditic plants produce inedible figs. Or ficus can have only female flowers and produce edible figs.

Ficus flowers are pollinated by minute wasps looking for a place to lay their eggs. In hermaphroditic figs, the eggs hatch in the fig. When the youngsters leave the fig, they are covered with the pollen that they will later transfer to female ficus flowers. Female figs have a flower that is too long for the wasp to lay eggs. In both cases, wasps die in the fig. The next time you eat a fig, think of the extra protein you are getting from these tiny creatures.

Most Ficus species can only be pollinated by a complementary species of wasp. While a ficus can grow in other habitats, without its specific wasp, the plant will not be fertile.

What I have written here is an abbreviated version of the intertwined life of ficus and their wasps. For a better story, see “The Weird Sex Life of the Fig” at The fig farmers go through incredible machinations in getting their products to the grocery store!