Belonging to the mulberry family is the Ficus or fig group of plants with over 800 species. With mulberries the flowers are packed tightly together on a fleshy spike and when they are pollinated a tightly packed cluster of fruitlets are formed, which give you the delicious berry. With figs the flowers are inside the now hollow fleshy spike and require special fig-wasps to pollinate them. In New Zealand most wasps are absent and so most fig species never set seed and become ripe.
One of the most attractive figs is one that comes from the Himalayan foothills of India, Bhutan, Nepal, China and to southeast Asia. It is called Ficus auriculata or Roxburgh Fig though in its native range it is commonly called the Elephant Ear Fig. Usually growing no more than eight metres high but spreading more with age, this small tree is deciduous in the late spring. Like many trees from tropical countries the large, stiff, corrugated, roughly heart shaped, dark green leaves drop off to be replaced by beautiful translucent red leaves which gradually age to dark green. They can be up to 50cm long.
The figs are produced in clusters on spurs which occur along the thicker stems and trunks and are produced over much of the year. They are up to 10cm long, have a velvety coating of hairs and are reddish brown with beautiful markings. We find that when they are ready to be pollinated they give off a spicy fragrance which is particularly noticeable on a calm evening. We cannot pollinate them as we don’t have male pollen to start the process off but in their natural countries they are one of the great figs to eat although they don’t seem to get to markets outside their natural range. One common name for the fruit is coconut strawberry fig. They are described as gelatinous when ripe. Starts the saliva working doesn’t it? We pick the infertile fruit and use them as a decorative item, where they never fail to create interest.
The tree is best grown in a frost free area with free draining soils. They are regarded as drought tolerant. Plants must be grown in full sun as they resent shade. The tree will start fruiting in four or five years. This plant can also be used as a house plant though it will need a lot of light and reasonable amount of space.
In India, Nepal and Bhutan this Ficus is a preferred fodder tree for feeding to cows particularly in dry periods as it has good nutritional properties as well as being very palatable. Maybe we have a potentially new use for a fig in our warmer climes during the next dry summer!