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The creeping fig in blossom

September 2, 2013

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.

Ficus pumila fruit.Aug30.2013.72

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’!

Ficus pumila on wall.72

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…..

Ficus pumila habitus.Aug30.2013.72

Ficus pumila Aug.30.2013.72

…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.

Ficus pumila flower section.Aug.30.2013.72

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.

Ficus benjamina with female wasps.72

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

13 Comments leave one →
  1. c martin permalink
    September 2, 2013 2:16 PM

    Good to see you back for a while…

  2. Mac Prahin permalink
    September 2, 2013 4:14 PM

    Nice to have your interesting blog active again even for a short time
    Wish you a great time back in Chiang Mai before returning back in Sweden

  3. Lorri Pimlott permalink
    September 2, 2013 4:28 PM

    We were saddened to learn earlier this year that a visit to Dokmai Garden would no longer be one of the highlights of the months we spend in our beloved Chiang Mai, escaping the cold European winter, so I was delighted to find a new post from you downloading into my in-box this morning. Perhaps if you have time, you could post occasionally about the plants you encounter in your new home in Sweden. I can’t imagine that you won’t have a garden there. My very best wishes for the future to you and your family.

    • September 2, 2013 5:47 PM

      Thanks everyone for encouraging greetings. We’ll see how Dokmai Dogma develops. Next blog is scheduled for the 5th.

      Cheers, Eric

  4. September 2, 2013 5:41 PM

    As a Chiang Mai gardener I have enjoyed your blogs posts over the past couple of years. Hopefully the latest one is not the last!
    Thank you

  5. annelie hendriks permalink
    September 2, 2013 7:42 PM

    I wish you and your family a happy future. We always loved Dokmai Graden and I also learned a lot from it and from the blogs. I kept 90% of the blogs for reference. I personally can not imagine going back to live in cold Europe except for one summer month. But wherever you go and whatever you do I wish you luck. Keep us informed about your future plans.

    Love Annelie and greetings from Manus

    Sent from my iPad

  6. September 2, 2013 10:44 PM

    Eric, wonderful to see your post. Palm guys are predisposed to dislike Ficus because, with the help of birds, some of them germinate in the crowns of palms and grow until they end up killing the palm. But your Ficus pumila has made you so happy that I’ll make an exception for it. Congratulations!

    • September 3, 2013 7:32 AM

      Absolutely, little cute fig seedlings might turn into water sucking giants clogging pipelines and strangling fruit trees and palms. A present mind is needed to shape the garden.

  7. Hans de Wit permalink
    September 2, 2013 11:44 PM

    Hej, Eric, We are so glad to hear from you again. Do I understand that you go back to Sweden again now?With your wife and childeren or are you back again where te wife is what you write. Sweden is also one of my very favorite country’s and there are so many Thai now living. But a Dokmai Garden in Sweden will be totally an other garden. Best whishes for the future and we looking for your next blog. greetings from Amsterdam -Holland!

  8. Barbara Lutz permalink
    September 3, 2013 2:44 AM

    Nice to hear from you again.  We have a creeping fig here, but have never heard of any fruit – just grow on walls as you described.  Thank you.  Good luck with all.  


    • September 3, 2013 7:38 AM

      Thanks again everyone for happy cheers. The creeping fig which made fruits grows in slight shade and it has reached the end of its substrate (the roof of the garbage shed). This may have triggered lateral branching and flowers. Full sun and trimming may keep it in the expansive growth mode, which is preferred if the goal is a flat green wall.

  9. roland permalink
    September 3, 2013 1:24 PM

    welcome back! is dokmai for sale? if you ever get bored i still need guidance on my garden. its not big but i want to plant the right plants in the right area! i am willing to pay for your time. thank u!
    or is there anybody else in chiang mai who can help a confused farang!
    write to me at

    thank uuuuu

  10. September 4, 2013 10:51 AM

    Dear Roland,

    If somebody with sensibility is interested in buying Dokmai Garden or establish a partnership (shares) that can be discussed. As to the consultancy the days before departure are packed but I shall forward your request.

    Cheers, Eric

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