Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham
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Ficus benghalensis (Darwin)
(This article appeared in Alfresco magazine in September 2005)
Figs to most of us are the dried fruit we see in supermarket bulk bins or the squashy rude-looking fruit on the neighbour's tree. You either love them or hate them. But to fig-lovers, they are food of the gods, delicious, sensuous and extraordinarily versatile fruit which can be eaten fresh and succulent, or stewed, bottled or pickled in brandy and served with ice-cream, or made into jams and chutneys, dried, candied.. you name it. But enough of hedonistic pleasures.
The common fig, Ficus carica, is only one of about six hundred species of figs which range from sly little creepers to jungle giants of staggering proportions. Almost all of them come from the tropics. And while many of them are edible, none can hold a gastronomic candle to the common fig.
One of these giants is the familiar house-plant, Ficus benjamina, the Chinese weeping banyan, which in fact is native everywhere from India to Northern Australia. While it is a dainty pot-plant indoors, it is a huge sprawling and spectacular tree in the humid tropics with masses of interlocking aerial roots wrapping around the trunk like plaited ropes. There are magnificent specimens draping their weeping branches down the banks of the Brisbane river, while in the Asian monsoon tropics they are towering temple and graveyard trees over 30metres high. And they grow here in NZ too, although our cooler climate keeps them to a graceful and manageable four or five metres.
The fabled Bodhi tree from India and South East Asia also grows well here. This name refers to the story that Buddha is said to have received enlightenment while meditating under one of these which has led to its latin name, Ficus religiosa. It is a beautiful, muscular, large tree whose buttressed trunk, branches and ropey roots weld themselves together wherever they touch. Its striking shiny leaves have a slender rat-tail tip.
Ficus dammaropsis is a spectacular large tree in the jungles of Papua New Guinea but here it is compact and stout to about 5m with huge pleated leaves 60cm across. It is a dramatic sight in Northern NZ gardens but needs shelter with no frost.
The familiar Moreton Bay fig, from Queensland is a massive, imposing beast with huge roots forming radiating ribbons of wood across the ground, no doubt searching for your septic tank with evil intent. Definitely not for the home garden. The popular indoor rubber tree, Ficus elastica is equally a menace close to plumbing and drains.
On Lord Howe Island, a rare fig, Ficus columnaris, sends roots down from the branches which reach the ground and become new trunks, and so the tree walks in all directions until it becomes a small forest. Several of the more tropical banyans also walk in this way, including Australia's Ficus virens, India's Ficus retusa and Ficus benghalensis and the aptly named Ficus polypoda. A famous ancient Ficus benghalensis near Poona in India has hundreds of trunks and a circumference of a kilometre.
These banyans often start life like our native Northern and Southern Rata. Fig seeds, dropped by birds, germinate high in jungle tree-tops or old buildings with the accompanying bird manure to speed their growth. Long thin roots snake down to ground level, and once there, they thicken up fast and eventually the host is encircled and throttled by the self-welding roots. Many an ancient building in tropical Asia has been engulfed and demolished in this way. I must confess I have a weakness for plants that bring a hint of a more dangerous, edgy natural world into the garden.
All figs have scary root systems and should never be planted near drain-pipes or septic systems. Nevertheless, its gratifying to discover that many of the tropical banyans will grow well here, creating an exotic, spooky look in a warm sheltered spot.
Especially if they find the septic tank.
Years ago I planted a Ficus virens outside my bedroom and on quiet nights I swear I can hear the sound of slurping. Childhood nightmares about tigers and gorillas under the bed have given way to dreams of a greener hue.
(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2005)