Ficus

New Plant Love: Ficus

Ficus are the most forgiving plants that I have grown. They may not show off like other flowering trees, but they look better and better as they grow older. So, it is a good tree to start with for any new gardener, and the reward will show in time.

Ficus bonsai
A Ficus bonsai

Old love

My love for Bougainvillea has come down by a notch. I also realized that it doesn’t love me that much. It doesn’t bloom on me as much as some other people. I felt jealous when I saw multiple colors of bougainvilleas blooming on the back of a car. They were coming back from a church after decorating it for the weekend. I know that this person started growing bougainvilleas after me. Yet mine is nowhere near a trip to the church. Not only the bloom but I came to discover that the trunk and branches of bougainvilleas are not as strong against rot as their thorns. A little injury on the trunk turns to saw-dust and is easily bored by worms. This is not good, especially for a bonsai lover. I still love bougainvilleas and will keep growing and propagating. But the initial loving feeling has come down.

Ficus carica
Ficus carica from Jerusalem

New love

I was on a journey with only an unfamiliar driver and without any co-passengers to chatter with. It gave me time to reflect as I look at the greenery along the way. And it suddenly came over me that I am in love with a new plant. Like you have loved someone but didn’t realize it, this plant had been with me for a long time but I had not realized it. It wasn’t love at first sight but it was love which came as a realization after having been in a relationship for a very long time. We have made babies in the past although it was purely through non-sexual means. To dispel any misconception or rumor, let me clarify that I am talking about a family of plants and not a single plant. Yes, I am talking about Ficus.

Ficus at Dachokulu, Kikruma

History

There is a huge Ficus tree outside our home in the village. My grandparents have slept under its shed which suggests that the tree was there before them. The growth is still so healthy and has vigorous growth that the branches have to be chopped off every two years. There is a story in our family which goes like this. My aunt who was then staying in Phek came to the village with his child and spent the night in the village. This child who is my cousin could not get any sleep. So, my other aunty in the village took the child, opened the window and said, ‘He is one of us. Stop disturbing him’. After that, the child could go to sleep. It is believed that there is a family of spirits which have made their home on the tree. The spirits know all our family members. But the small spirits were curious about the new baby in the house and could not stop disturbing him. Other people have experienced similar disturbances even in the recent past although none of us experience anything.

Ficus
Ficus outside our ancestral home, Kikruma

There is a fascinating story about Ficus in BBC which is called ‘The tree that shaped human history’. Not only has the Ficus witnessed human history, but has shaped it. ‘No other plants have held such sway over the human imagination. They feature in every major religion and have influenced kings and queens, scientists and soldiers’, notes Mike Shanahan, the writer of the piece. Here, he was not talking about a single tree, but over 750 species which are known by the name fig. Ficus includes species such as the Indian Banyan, Buddha’s Ficus religiosa, common fig fruit tree (Ficus carica), the sycamore fig tree which Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed to see Jesus, and weeping fig (Ficus benjamina).

Inner beauty

The BBC story reveals something which made me love it all the more. I didn’t know that Figs are flowering trees because we don’t see flowers although we see fruits. So, how do figs produce fruits without flowering? They do flower, but the flower is inside the fig fruit! I find that to be amazing at two levels. One is that it is an unusual thing and is unexpected. The other is that figs have inner beauty as opposed to other trees and flowering plants. Beauty can be deceiving but figs choose to hide their beauty on the inside. That is appealing to me as a student of human nature.

Local Fig, Kikruma

A little naughty

While Ficus are humble in hiding their beauty inside the fruit, their hands can be long and naughty. They send out stranglers and I find that to be naughty. For example, the great Indian banyan sends down its aerial roots and a matured single tree can look like a mini forest from a distance. The aerial roots of Ficus can look like vines hanging down from a tree. Multiple strands can look like silky straight hairs of a maiden. The tip of each vine splits and is eager to grab anything on the way. They can’t wait to reach the ground and once they do, they go deep or grab around rocks and anything on their way.

Ficus roots

Useful to prevent earthquakes

I have not seen a tree with better roots than Ficus. After just a year of taking a branch cutting, the root hairs develop rapidly. If you walk down the steep road from Baptist College Kohima, you will find huge fig trees and their exposed roots grabbing at the soil. That makes them ideal trees to grow to prevent landslides. As you travel across Nagaland, there are multiple sites you see roads sinking and sliding down the slopes. Retaining walls were made but were carried away. In many such instances, planting Ficus trees will help in the long run in preventing landslides. Not only landslides but matured trees by the road have the capacity to prevent accidents by acting as physical barriers in bad terrains.

The grand old Ficus outside our home, Kikruma After a haircut

Bringing back forest

The BBC story documented instances where abandoned and barren civilizations were reforested with the help of Ficus. When the winds blow fig seeds into the cracks in stonework and germinate, the roots rip apart the masonry and make the walls collapse with their weight. The fruits attract animals which also bring seeds of other plants. Therefore forests in these abandoned places reappear with the help of Ficus. Scientists are helping to bring back the rainforests destroyed by logging by planting Ficus.

A majestic Ficus tree on the way to Zunheboto

Propagation

Propagation by seeds is not easy. Specific pollinator insects are required. But Ficus trees are easy to propagate by cuttings. I root cuttings in the early summer months. But I have experienced success even at other times like late summer. The success rate is higher when cuttings are rooted in pots/sacks than in the ground. I think it is due to the warmer bottom in the former. Big branches are also capable of taking roots and this is useful for bonsai lovers. There is shorter waiting time to get a bigger trunk and the desired movement of the tree. Another method of propagation is by air layering. A section of the branch or trunk is peeled of its outer skin, covered with soil mix, and wrapped with polythene. Roots develop at the wrapped area and the branch/tree is cut off just below the root formation. The upper portion becomes a new plant.

And…

Figs are believed to be the first fruit that humans have cultivated. It might be true that we humans are here today because our forefathers survived by eating figs. The fruits are believed to have the power of healing ailments. Many animal species continue to survive because of figs.

Today, Ficus are largely seen as ornamental trees. Nagas have planted the tree in traditional village gates. On the way to paddy fields, resting spots exist where a single prominent Ficus tree would lend its shade. Ficus are a great choice for a centerpiece in landscape designs.

Ficus are the most forgiving plants that I have grown. They may not show off like other flowering trees, but they look better and better as they grow older. So, it is a good tree to start with for any new gardener, and the reward will show in time.

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