Go-figure

Published on: 6/11/18

Figs or roses in the rainforest

Who gives a fig? Well, dried figs make lovely presents in some cultures, but are they more acceptable than flowers? More of that later.

Here in the Daintree we have 30 species of figs. Quite a few, but not as many as the 1000 or so world species.

Emmagen-Creek-Fig
Emmagen Creek fig

Someone once asked me which was the most populous plant in the rainforest. I didn’t know the answer, but it could be the fig. But by any measure of weirdness and diversity, figs figure highly.

Figs (the Ficus family) figure among the most spectacular and stately trees in the rainforest.

The strangler figs start life as an epiphyte high in a host tree, as a germinated seed dropped (pooped)
by a bird or flying fox. Then its roots crawl down the host tree, reaching the ground and spreading far out to support its growing weight. In the process, they merge together on the tree itself.

Merging roots of strangler fig
Merging roots of strangler fig

Specimens of strangler figs are at Marrja Boardwalk, near Emmagen Creek, and, most spectacular and diverse of all, at Thompsons Creek, along the Bloomfield Track near Wujal Wujal, an Indigenous community and famous for its wonderful waterfall.

Wujal mural through banyan hanging roots Banyan-style figs grow differently, by developing many inter-connected trunks, and some drop stringlike roots from the tips of branches, like the Curtain Fig at Yungaburra, or a smaller one in Wujal Wujal village.

New Mural at Wujal Wujal Sports Centre

Then there are various variegated figs (pun again intended); cluster figs; and hairy figs which are all cauliflorous, which means that the fruit grows on the trunk and branches. Cocoa, jackfruit, and bumpy satin ash are all examples of cauliflorous plants. Cauliflory is a process that happens throughout tropical rainforests, and presumably makes it easier for pollination by ground insects and birds.

It’s now October, and all around the Bloomfield Track from Cape Tribulation to Cedar Bay there are plenty of examples of fruiting cauliflorous figs.

And here’s where it gets really weird. In almost all modern flowering plants, the flowers are pollinated in the air, then fruit follow in the usual manner.

But all figs are different.

Variegated Fig clusters at Cedar Bay National park

Botanically, figs are not really fruit but clusters of flowers.The flower grows inside the fruit, which are pollinated by fig wasps wasps.

A female wasp squeezes through a tiny hole in the end of the fig lining. She then lays eggs, and moves around, fertilising each flower. The figs will only ripen if they’re pollinated.

The young are born and mate, then the female wasps crawl out of the fruit and an enzyme cleans up all the “animal” residue. So, the crunchy seeds are just seeds, not wasps!

So, when you’re thinking of flowers as a gift, dont rule out the humble dried fig. She’ll love you for it. And vegetarians can eat them.

Wujal Wujal Falls are flowing well (September and October are dry months), as they do all year around.

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