Tuesday, 10 December 2013

I love a large-leaved fig, but not to eat


I'm a sucker for figs with big leaves. The bigger the better. Ficus dammaropsis from the rainforests of Papua New Guinea has perhaps the biggest in cultivation. We have a few of these figs dotted around the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne but they do best when protected a little from full sun and I'm guessing full wind - big, floppy leaves are easily tattered.


Its common names include Dinner Plate Fig (after the big leaves, undoubtedly serving this purpose on occasion), Highland Breadfruit (due to the large fruit, although not really like the fruit of the true Breadfruit, Artocarpus artilus) or in its home country (and here I'm relying on Wikipedia), Kapiak.

There are nearly 800 species of Ficus (fig) in the world, with about 40 native to Australia. New Guinea has at least 130 species, more than half of them found nowhere else in the world.


It was the fruit that drew my attention the other day, when I walked past this specimen near our mulching area in the Royal Botanic Gardens. It looked like it might be delicious to eat. However I knew not many of the world's fig species produce tasty fruits so I didn't dare try it.

The fruit of one species, Ficus carica, is of course very popular. Native to the Middle East and western Asia, the domestic or common fig has been part of our lives for thousands of years. As I noted in passing a couple of years ago,  the common fig may be the oldest domesticated plant in the world.

A handful of dried figs were found in a house in the Lower Jordan Valley, just north of Jericho. This wasn’t an ordinary house and these weren’t ordinary figs. The fruits were found by archaeologists excavating the Neolithic village of Gilgal, last occupied 11,400 years ago! 

Following the death of the head archaeologist, the figs were in effect reburied in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until an invited scientist looked through all the Gilgal treasures and rediscovered the dried fruits. Close examination revealed they were sterile, and once soft and edible – not the kind of fruit produced by wild relatives of the edible fig that grow naturally in this region.

The tasty fruits of the domestic fig are the result of a genetic change that allows embryos to develop without fertilisation. Such virgin fruits are not uncommon, and this mutation has occurred naturally in pineapple, bananas and grapes. This kind of mutant will usually only persist with some help from humans and the fig was an ideal candidate for early domestication. The fruit was tasty and can be easily dried, and the plant is relatively easy to propagate from cuttings.

It’s not surprising then that the inhabitants of Gilgal stored domesticated fig fruits alongside their wild collected barley, oats and acorns. Cereals were domesticated a thousand years later, and it was another five centuries before grapes, olives and dates were propagated. It seems it was the fig that started it all.


Back in the Royal Botanic Gardens and dreaming of Papua New Guinea, it's apparent our large-leaved, big-fruited fig didn't start such a trend. As my many botanical colleagues in Australia who have spent time in Papua New Guinea would know, the leaves of Ficus dammaropsis are used locally (in New Guinea) for wrapping pork. Younger leaves can be cooked and eaten, often along with the aforementioned pig. But only the outer part of the fruit is edible and even then it doesn't seem to have taken the world by storm.

Ah well, I'll just have to enjoying looking up through the giant leaves to our bright blue sky, and buy some of my favourite Greek dried (domestic) figs on the way home.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I think figs are fascinating; we have some in the Marjorie McNeeley Conservatory in Como Park. I hope I get to work with ficus species when I'm done with school.
Connie