The creeping fig in blossom
Dear friends of the monsoon flora,
I am briefly back in the saddle again! After three months in temperate but gorgeous Sweden, revisiting my childhood local flora, making archaeological findings and enjoying true ales and Swedish cuisine, I currently pay a short visit to my beloved Chiang Mai. My solitude for three months made me realize home is where my wife is, so I am here to bring her and the kids to Sweden, save a few weeks of vacation.
What happened at Dokmai Garden during my absence? Dokmai Garden is at an explosive growth mode. Upon my arrival I was treated with our own organic pineapples and chog annan Rolls-Royce quality mangoes, more prolific than ever. The guinea fowl have successfully raised a child almost to mature age. I foresee future generations independent of human care! The monsoon woodland is shadier than ever and its orchids prolific and fruiting. Flat-tailed geckos (Cosymbotus platyurus) have challenged the dominance of the spiny-tailed geckos, a welcome change in the reptile fauna.
Today’s blog was triggered by my scream of joy when I went to the garbage shed and realized the creeping fig, Ficus pumila (Moraceae), is fruiting! This anonymous green from southern China and Vietnam, known for its ability to slowly cover walls with green leaves, such as at the Chedi Hotel downtown and the Siam Celadon factory, now displays its natural growth mode with large leaves and….pear-sized ‘fruits’!
Ketsanee calls this ornamental fig ‘tin tokae’ (gecko foot) after its tiny leaves which cling to the surface like gecko feet. Other Thai names are ‘ma duea thao’ (turtle fig) or ‘lin suea’ (tiger tongue). Most of us tropical gardeners experience the plant as a flowerless and fruitless green used to cover ugly walls…..
…but the devoted field biologist or ignorant gardener leaving his plants to develop without trimming will realize its true habit: instead of puny 2.5 cm leaves, ‘untidy’ silvery branches growing out of the main stem will carry 7 cm long (not including the petiole) and stiff leaves. They are almost plastic in their appearance. At times large ‘fruits’ reaching 7 cm may emerge. ‘Pumila means ‘small’, a name coined by the Swedish gentleman Linnaeus in 1753. My many references to Species Plantarum (1753) caught the curiosity of the Biodiversity Heritage Library and they wrote a short presentation about Dokmai Garden here.
This is a section of a Ficus pumila ‘fruit’ made earlier today at Dokmai Garden. What we refer to as ‘fig’ is not one fruit. More correctly it is a structure unique to the fig genus called syconium (Greek ‘sukon’=fig). It is a fleshy outgrowth of the stem carrying hundreds or even thousands of flowers inside. Each crunchy ‘grain’ is in fact a one seeded fruit. In this picture, the flowers are still in blossom and so it is still inedible.
The flowers and fruits are well protected inside the syconium or fig. An immature and unfertilized fig is loaded with the unpleasant milky sap and so not appealing to bats, monkeys and birds that would only feed on the mature (fertilized) figs. When in blossom, winged female wasps of the Agaonidae family may squeeze through the mouth (ostiole) at the tip of the fig. Inside they lay eggs. Wingless males mate with winged females, and when the females escape they rub against the male flowers at the inside tip of the fig and get covered in pollen. Interestingly, some fig individuals carry male flowers only, providing food for the wasp larvae and pollen for fertilization, while figs with female flowers are pollinated but too long to be used for larval food (the ovipositor can not reach the ovule where the larva develops). Another type of figs carry female flowers only, and they may produce edible fruits without pollination. Gastronomically, fertilized fruits are considered the tastiest. Since the syconiums of this creeping fig are formed far from its natural habitat and its natural pollinators, it is likely they will remain unfertilized and may not be palatable, although there is a chance they might be capable of self-fertilization.
In this picture of the syconium of the common and native ornamental benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina) you can actually see the winged female wasps and their long ovipositors. I collected this ‘fruit’ from a tree outside the swimming pool of ‘Home in Park’. The Dokmai Garden specimens are still too young (six years) to produce any figs. A characteristic of the fig of this species is its yellow colour, small size (2 cm), hairy outside and absence of a stalk. The flavour is a dry, astringent faint shade of true Mediterranean figs (Ficus carica).
Dokmai Garden is still closed but there will be a few upcoming blogs and what the future brings is unknown also to us.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell