Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Fig Tree

The fig tree is synonymous with the Mediterranean area even though it is originally from the Middle East and western Asia. Together with the grape vine and olive tree, the fig tree was one of the first trees to be domesticated. Its cultivation marks the start of horticulture in the Mediterranean.  Nowadays the figis cultivated for its fruit and as an ornamental tree far beyond the Mediterranean.

The fig tree is adapted for the Mediterranean climate. It remains in leaf and produces figs during the hottest months. It manages to do this by having an aggressive root system that can dig deep into the earth seeking the minutest sources of water that allow it to flourish when all surrounding vegetation is parched dead and in the process cooling the surrounding environment.

Figs are an important food for mammals as well as for local and migratory birds. In return these fruit eaters help the tree by dispersing its seeds with their droppings. It is no wonder that sometimes one sees fig trees growing out of walls and in cracks along pavements and other unusual places.

To produce seeds all species of fig require the help of a particular species of wasp. The fertilised female wasp enters the fig through a tiny hole in the crown. The wasp walks over the flowers and lays eggs on some of them. While walking she unwittingly leaves pollen on the flowers which fertilise them. After laying the eggs she dies inside the fruit. 

This is the start of a cycle that sees male wasps hatching before females. The males fertilise the females which are still in the unhatched eggs. When the time comes the males assist the females to hatch while some males enlarge the hole so that the fertilised females can leave the fruit. The newly emerged fertilised females have 48 hours in which to find another fruit, enter through its tiny hole and lay their eggs.

Reading through the list of health benefits of the fig tree and its fruit is like going through the list of contents in a medicine chest. Even the sap which is known as an irritant to human skin has its benefits. It is traditionally used to remove warts and to reduce the pain from wasp stings but recent studies have shown that it is also anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Other parts of the tree are antibacterial and antiviral while the fruit provides many beneficial nutrients.  

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 14 August 2014.

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