Giving a Fig

The complicated relationship between figs and fig wasps

Bronwen Scott

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Among my collection of plants from Far North Queensland and Cape York Peninsula are two ring ins. One is Hibiscus insularis, a tree hibiscus from tiny Phillip Island a few kilometres south of Norfolk Island in the SW Pacific Ocean. The other is Ficus podocarpifolia, a scrawny scrambling fig from the red rock gorges of the Mitchell Plateau of Western Australia. The fig had a tough start in life, reduced to a leafless (and apparently lifeless) stick for months. But I kept an eye on it, watering sparingly, and it started to put out leaves again. It is doing well — so well that it has produced fruit.

Figs are strange and wonderful things. What we tend to think of as a fruit is actually a syconium, a case lined with tiny flowers. When pollinated, those flowers turn into minuscule fruit, each containing a seed. In syconia of the edible fig (F. carica), the fruit are densely packed and succulent. In many other species, they’re sparse and fibrous, and have a flavour and texture that is not for us.

The tiny figs of Ficus podocarpifolia. Cultivated plant, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott.

With the flowers on the inside, pollination is not easy.

Tiny wasps — just two or three millimetres long — pollinate figs. In most cases each species of fig has its own species of wasp. No other will do.

The wasps spend most of their life inside the syconium. The process is a cycle. So where to begin? At what point do we break into the story? Perhaps with the wasp breaking into the fig

At one end of the syconium is an ostiole, an entrance protected by densely packed bracts. Female wasps shove and squeeze their way in, losing their wings in the struggle. They don’t need their wings anymore. Once inside, they will never leave again.

They bring with them a dusting of pollen from another plant. Once inside, the females lay their eggs in the some of the flowers and brush pollen on others. As with everything about the fig and wasp relationship, the story is more complicated — which flowers are pollinated and which become the home of developing wasps depends on the form of the flower. There is nothing simple…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com