Come the month of May, the atmosphere in Tropical Spice Garden is filled with a pungent, fruity fragrance. While walking around the Heart of the Garden, look down and you will notice an abundance of rotten berries/fruits along the pathway. Yes, those are the figs, wild and flourishing in the Garden.
There are a few large fig trees in the garden. One of the specimens in the Heart of the Garden is the Strangler fig tree.
Figs (Ficus spp) are one of the successful forest species, with up to 900 species distributed around the world. Fig trees play an important role in the tropical rainforest as the syconium makes up the main diet for many types of animals in the forest, from mammals, e.g. monkeys, bats, and squirrels; to birds – residential and migrating species.
The way a Strangler fig grows is very special. Life starts as a tiny, sticky seed in an animal’s feces disposed in the canopy of a host tree. With ample sunlight and water, the seed grows its roots downwards towards to forest floor, aiming to penetrate into the soil. As time passes, the roots thicken and wraps around the host tree. Eventually the fig’s crown grows and overshadows the host. Once the host is strangled, the fig will then absorb the nutrients from the host while competing with the host for sunlight and water. Eventually, the host tree dies, leaving the Strangler fig with a hollow trunk.
One unique feature of Strangler figs is the syconium, a type of multiple fruit that are formed from a cluster of flowers (inflorescence), where the ovaries are found within a hollow, succulent vessel. Due to the absence of physical flowers on the tree itself, the fig tree is often called “Wu Hua Guo” in Chinese, meaning “fruit borne without flower”.
Open a syconium and you can see ten to hundreds of stamens and ovaries, and dead insects inside! Therefore, when guests ask whether the fig fruits are safe to be eaten, we always advise not to because it is usually eaten by wild animals, not recommended for humans as there are insect eggs and/or other invertebrates inside the fruit, which can be unhygienic.
Why are there insects in the fruits? Syconium has a symbiotic relationship with the fig wasps (Agaonidae spp). The wasps enter through the small opening underneath the fruit and pollinate the flower in the process of laying eggs. The fruits then bear seeds which fall to the ground upon maturation. The wildlife in the Garden usually consumes the fruit while it is still green and attached to the tree, as mature fruits on the ground are highly likely to be infested with dead wasps and wasp eggs.
Visit our Garden in the early morning and you might chance upon witnessing the Green Pigeons feeding on the fig tree growing splendidly in the middle of our Gift Shop!
Some forest figs fruit all year long, providing a constant supply for the frugivorous wildlife in the rainforest. However, due to constant logging and open forest burning, many slow-growing forest species are unable to regenerate and may also affect the fruiting consistency of the figs. Consequently, the frugivores are forced to source and compete for alternative fruit sources during the irregular fig ‘non-flowering’ seasons. Hence, it is vital for us to understand and appreciate the significance of wild plants in the rainforest, which they are not only useful for medicinal & nutrient values, but also furnish the wild animals with protection & care.