Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sandpaper Fig

Ficus coronata
Figs are plants with very strange habits. Their flowers form INSIDE the young fruiting bodies, and are pollinated by wasps which enter by the tiny hole in the end. The “fruits” we eat may still be flowering inside. And yes, the wasps are always there. They're minute and fig-flavoured, so we never even notice that we are eating them.

This two-year-old  Ficus coronata in Peacehaven Botanic Park has put out a great old crop of fruit. You can see that it’s almost leafless. The species drops most or all of its leaves in early spring. (The leafless, fruiting branches do make a decorative feature in a flower arrangement.)

Ficus coronata also has the strange habit called “cauliflory”, where fruits pop straight out of the large branches and even the trunks, as in this photo I took a few weeks ago in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens.
(I have heard a rumour that Grapetree Road, near Pechey, was named for a plant with the cauliflorous habit. Does anyone know what the “grapetree” was? Please leave me a comment, below, if you do.)
This is the best native fig for garden purposes. Unlike the rainforest giants, the little sandpaper figs don’t have those enormous water-seeking roots (though it is still best to plant them five metres away from your pipes, paths, and foundations).
It makes a bushy little tree if grown in the sun. If it does get straggly, it’s easy enough to prune to shape, and can be kept to large-shrub-size.
Although these plants are most often found in creek beds in the wild, they are drought hardy trees which grow well (like specimen below) in unwatered local gardens.

Plants can be dioecious (separate male and female trees) or monoecious (male and female flowers on the same tree), so to be sure of getting fruits, it is best to plant several of them. They can be planted close together, (40-50cm apart) to save space. After Christmas, the fruits ripen to this pretty shade of red.
All native figs are valuable food sources for birds, fruit bats, and possums. People also eat them, and those of Ficus coronata are said to be the best-tasting Australian fig.
Eaten raw , they have an quite acceptable flavour, though they can be a bit dry if they come from a drought-stressed tree. Rub the hairs off before putting them in your mouth! The fruits can also be used in cooking, or crystallised.
They are rather variable from crop to crop, even on the same tree, so if one lot is disappointing, have faith! Watering well as the trees are fruiting, and fertilising early in spring, are two ways to improve the crop.
And yes, you really can use the leaves as fine sandpaper!


Anonymous said...

Thanx, I had previously only thought of them as a creek edge or gully tree, now I see why some in more sun are smaller. Cant wait to eat the fruit ether.

Patricia Gardner said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the flavour.

Debra Martin said...

Can you tell me if these Sandpaper Figs are self pollinating? I have 3 of them but only one of them is fruiting, not sure why? Thank you for any help you can offer.

Patricia Gardner said...

Hi Debra,
Good to hear from you, and I'm glad you have drawn my attention to something I left out of this post.
Our native figs are sometimes monoecious (both sexes on the same plant) and sometimes dioecious (male plants and female plants). It sounds as though you have a female plant and two males.
It's worth keeping at least one male plant to make sure the female plant fruits.

Debra Martin said...

Hi Trish,

I moved the two non fruiting ones the other to either side of the fruiting one hoping that maybe the fig wasps might pollinate them and when I checked this morning, one of the plants appears to have started getting little balls on it which I'm hoping are figs and not just new growth. The fruiting tree is absolutely smothered in growing figs so I'm hoping the other 2 do end up fruiting too. I don't think I'd have too much trouble getting through them. Lol. Do they have a similar flavour to say a Genoa?

Patricia Gardner said...

Hi Debra.
I'm delighted to hear that you're getting more little figs. It may have been just a matter of the position, as you say, and because they can be monoecious you could end up with fruit on all three.
I'm afraid the bad news is that you are unlikely to find them as tasty as any of the commercial kinds of figs. The commercial figs are the result of thousands of years of human intervention in the form of breeding to develop fruit which appeals to human tastes. There are no Australian fruits which can compete with this, yet.
For sandpaper figs to be pleasant to eat, they need to be well-watered from the time the fruit starts to swell. Sometimes nature takes care of this, and sometimes you need to help it along.You may like to eat the result, but I prefer to leave them for the birds.
I like to grow figs because our native birds really need all the help they can get, in these days when the bush is being cleared at an ever-increasing rate. Fig fruits are full of tiny seeds, and make a very good balanced, nutritious meal for them.
Also, of course, figs are a big feature in simply attracting birds to gardens - the more you provide, the more birds will come to see your garden as a good place to be.
Whatever you do with them, I hope your figs give you lots of pleasure!