The Mulberry Family
The fig tree is a member of the Mulberry family (Moraceae), a linked collection of plants that besides the mulberries and figs includes the breadfruit, the jackfruit and the Osage orange. Characteristics for these plants include a thick, milky colored sap and a complex array of flowers that bear multiple fruits. Multiple fruit is a botanical term that describes the situation, where fruits of individual flowers are closely packed together to form a single fruit. A common example of a multiple fruit is the pineapple, though this common food staple is not a part of the mulberry family. All members of the Moraceae bear multiple fruits, even though in the case of the mulberry the mature fruit is relatively small.
The Genus Ficus
All types of fig trees are classified in the genus Ficus, despite major difference in size, growth rate and tree morphology. Fig trees vary greatly from those that form an immense mass of aerial roots that can cover acres to a small fruit bearing plant not much bigger than a shrub.
The Common Fig
The raw fig that you buy at the grocery store or the cooked fruit that comes rolled in a bakery product, all of these derive from one common ancestor that was domesticated in the Middle East at least 10,000 years ago. The Latin name for this tree is Ficus carica, with the species label, carica referring to a region of Asia Minor, commonly known as Caria. Today, Caria is part of southwestern Turkey, but its legacy lives on in the scientific name of the common fig.
The fig (tree) is mentioned over 50 times in the bible, including several parables with references to Jesus. The first mention occurs with Adam and Eve in the Garden and Eden,also suggesting that the cultivation of the fig is very old. From its Middle Eastern source the common fig has been transported to many parts of the world, where it is grown as an agricultural product.
The Wasp and the Common Fig
Like many members of the mulberry family, the common fig is distinguished by trees that are either male or female. That is to say each fig tree will produce flowers that are either all male or all female. To make things more interesting each group of flowers is completely encased within a vegetative sack. Therefore, the only flowers that get fertilized are those that get visited by a small wasp, which begins its life cycle in the male flower and then exits the pod and visits and fertilizes the flowers of the female pod. As a result fertilized female flowers are prized as a food stock, while unfertilized figs are fed to livestock.
A Sacred Fig Tree In India
In India and the other parts of the Far East, the fig trees grow much larger than in the Middle East. One such tree, Ficus religiosa is also known a the Buddha tree or Bohdi tree, for this is the sacred tree, where the Gautama Buddha sat under to obtain enlightenment. The original Bodhi tree is no longer in existence, but any tree that can trace its ancestry to the original plant, is considered sacred. The Bohdi tree, both sacred and non-sacred, are all of the same species Ficus religiosa . This tree is much taller than its Middle Eastern cousin, as it obtain a height of over a 100 feet, while developing a thick, twisted trunk that can reach ten feet in diameter..
The Banyan Fig
In southern India, there grows another fig tree that differs significantly from the already-mentioned Bohdi tree and common fig. This tree is called the Banyan fig, and instead of growing from the grown up, this tree begins as a seedling in the forest canopy and grows towards the earth by sending down aerial prop roots until they reach the ground. As a result these trees can become huge. Alexander the Great is known to have camped under one particular tree with 7,000 troops.Also, Hindu mystics have sought out this tree for meditation. Despite its size the Banyan fig relies on a small wasp for fertilization, just like the much smaller Common fig.
The strangler figs, a group which includes the Banyan tree, is a large assortment of tropical and sub-tropical plants, which began as an epiphyte in the crown of host trees, before sending down an extensive network of aerial roots. These strange plants are common occurrences, in the tropical rain forest, where they play an important ecological role as the colonizer of stone ruins and rock cliffs. The fruits of these trees also provide an important source of food for birds and other tree-top wildlife. All in all, the strangler fig plays a very important ecological role in the life of the tropical rain forest.