Figs and Ficus

Photo by Milo Inman

A past employee who used to be a regular contributor here, writing about all things Indian – and in particular, from Kerala – would publish frequently about plants and animals, among other subjects, and once, he wrote three posts in quick succession about three trees in the Ficus genus: the Elephant Ear, the Country Fig, and the Sacred Bodhi. The following month, another author here wrote on his feelings about ficus. This week, journalist Ben Crair writes about figs for the New Yorker:

The produce section of the grocery store is a botanical disaster. Most people know that a tomato is technically a fruit, but so is an eggplant, a cucumber, and a spaghetti squash. A banana, which grows from a flower with a single ovary, is actually a berry, while a strawberry, which grows from a flower with several ovaries, isn’t a berry at all but an aggregate fruit. The most confusing classification, though, will start showing up on American shelves this month. Shoppers will find mission figs with the grapes, kiwis, and other fruit, but a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses. Although many people dismiss figs as a geriatric delicacy or the sticky stuff inside bad cookies, they are, in fact, something awesome: enclosed flowers that bloom modestly inward, unlike the flamboyant showoffs on other plants. Bite a fig in half and you’ll discover a core of tiny blossoms.

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Feelings on Ficus

Ficus. The word brings to mind many things – the juicy sweetness of a ripe, freshly picked fig; the summer heat of any tropical or Mediterranean setting; fertility. But recently, Ficus means one thing to me: strangler figs. This may sound morbid, and in a branchy way, it is. Many species of ficus begin their lives epiphytically –  generally after a seed is dropped by a bird or arboreal mammal onto the upper branches of what will become a host tree. Over time, the seeds will germinate and sprout aerial roots, which make their way to the ground by either hanging freely or by crawling down the host tree’s trunk. It is not at all uncommon in Indian forests to see roots hanging from the canopy.

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