Fig trees throw down a lifeline to a healthier planet
Fig trees were here when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. And today, just as they did 80 million years ago, Ficus species continue to bring nourishment, shade, water and numerous other gifts to people and plants. What’s more, these trees may help us claw our way out of the ecological conundrums we currently find ourselves in—deforestation, species loss, and even climate change.
In a gripping 224 pages of eloquent writing, Mike Shanahan’s first book, ‘Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future’, brings us the fascinating story of fig trees. From the age of dinosaurs, to pre-history and the age of exploration, and into the present times, the reader learns how these trees shaped the planet and fascinated philosophers, conquerors and commoners alike.
Fig trees were the subjects of research for scientists like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and E. J. H. Corner. More recently, their biology has been studied by researchers such as ICRAF ecologist Rhett Harrison, naturalist and wildlife photographer Tim Laman, Ian Thornton, and the author himself.
Long after nurturing the ornamental fig Ficus benjamina during his childhood, Shanahan first encountered enormous fig trees—including the soaring giant strangler fig tree Ficus stupenda—in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, in 1997. Before, during and after his research for a PhD in rainforest ecology, a deep fascination with fig trees took him to Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, Australia, Japan and many other countries and islands, where he discovered the cultural importance of fig trees— over 750 species are known— in people’s lives.
Myths and stories protected fig trees
Everywhere, he found fig trees at the centre of mythology and numerous traditional stories. Frequently the trees were sacred, considered the home of the gods or even as deities themselves. There were many parallels among cultures. For instance, the Kikuyu creation story in Kenya, in which god created the first man and woman under a giant ‘mugumo’ (Ficus natalensis) tree, mirrors a story from Indonesia that describes how two gods fashioned the first couple from a fig tree. In modern religions too, fig trees are central; the forbidden fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was, in the original Bible story, a fig.
The book carries amazing illustrations of these relationships between humans, animals and figs, drawn by Shanahan, an accomplished scientific illustrator.
These myths and stories, he says, have helped protect fig trees through the ages. A Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) in Andhra Pradesh, India, now forms a leaf-covered scaffold of roots-turned-tree trunks that spans two hectares. In many cultures in Africa, it is still taboo to cut down a fig tree. When President Barack Obama visited India in 2015, it was a Ficus religiosa (Bo-tree) seedling that he planted, as a sign of friendship between the US and India.
This reverence for the fig tree is not misplaced. Since the 1800s researchers have been unravelling the reasons these trees play such a central role in healthy landscapes and species biodiversity.
They have found that besides giving a free round-the-year food supply, fig trees stabilise the soil and prevent landslides. Their roots both spread and go deep into the soil, forming channels that bring ground water from depth to the surface. In this way, a fig tree “offers a lifeline to wild animals and so places Ficus species at the centre of vast ecological webs. The birds and mammals that eat figs will also disperse the seeds of many other plants whose fruit they eat,” says Shanahan.
Fig trees, in this way, play a keystone role in the planet’s ecological balance; Wherever fig trees are found, so is life.
But no fig story is complete without a look into the trees’ unique reproduction. In the chapter “Sex & Violence in the Hanging Gardens,” Shanahan gives the full, nail-biting treatment to fig trees’ intriguing reproductive biology, with the sycamore fig, Ficus sycomorus and its partner fig wasp, Ceratosolen arabicus, taking starring roles.
Besides forming fig seeds from the pollinated flowers, a progeny of fig wasps will emerge from some of these ‘fruits’, to continue an ancient cycle of life that “connects plants and fungi, microscopic mites and parasitic worms, birds and bats, monkeys and apes – and even you and me.”
Fig trees could help us restore ravaged rainforests, stem the loss of wild species and even limit climate change.
Yet fig trees today are under threat. Deforestation, hunting, and forest burning mean that not just fig trees, but also their seed dispersers (gibbons, orangutans, bats and hornbills), are being decimated. Along with them, we are losing the fig trees’ life-giving properties to people and landscapes. Bringing back fig trees might offer the solution the planet so desperately needs.
Shanahan describes how fig trees prised life back from disaster-hit areas— Ficus species catalysed a dramatic recovery of Long Island off the Australian coast, and of Krakatoa, an island west of Java, Indonesia, after they were sterilised by volcanic explosions.
It would follow that in the current global effort to restore degraded landscapes and cap climate change, fig trees should be front and centre.
“Fig trees could help us restore ravaged rainforests, stem the loss of wild species, and even limit climate change,” says Shanahan.
Our forbearers knew it, and we must not forget it, he adds: “Look after fig trees and they will look after you.”
Purchase Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan.
The book will be republished in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, in November 2016.
Visit Mike Shanahan’s blog, Under the Banyan