by Tara A. Spears
Amid the verdant tropical riot of plants the huge Ficus tree is a standout. The Jaltemba Bay area is home to several species of the family Moraceae, a genus of about 850 species of woody trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes, (air plants) and hemiepiphytes, which are collectively known as Fig Trees. While Ficus maxima is a fig tree that is native to Mexico, other species were brought to Mexico in the early 1500s by the Conquistadors. Ficus maxima fruit is consumed by birds and mammals; in southern Mexico the indigenous people also eat the fruit and use it for folk remedies. The fig was one of the first plants ever to be cultivated by humans.
The specific identification of many of the species can be difficult, but Figs as a group are relatively easy to recognize. They have aerial roots, a distinctive thick, gnarled trunk, a wide leaf span of up to 35 meters across (115 feet), and a small reddish fruit twice a year. In tropical rainforests, their fruits are the major food resource for some bats, birds, capuchin monkeys and mangabeys. Fig trees are commonly found throughout the tropic regions and semi-warm temperate zone worldwide where there is high humidity. Environmentalists and biologists study the health of native Ficus trees as figs are considered to be a barometer of climatic changes.
Having a Fig at Home:
When I lived in a cold climate, I had Ficus trees as houseplants and Bonsai as they can’t tolerate temperatures below 50 F. (10C) If you have a really large yard, they are outstanding specimens with their unique twisted trunk and above ground roots. I have seen magnificent Fig Trees in the Mexican jungles that have roots more than a meter thick in all directions, besides the trunk itself more than two meters (7 feet) in diameter.
Normally the root system spreads out as far as the branches go outward—so if you have one in a yard it is wise to prune the tree back to help control the spreading root problem. In its native habitat, Ficus naturally drops leaves during the dry periods and then regrows the leaves once the rainy season resumes. With potted Figs as house plants, yellow leaves and leaf drop indicate that the soil is too dry. Like all trees, Ficus thrive when planted in well-draining soil so the roots don’t rot. Most members of the Ficus family prefer bright but indirect sunlight which makes it easy to grow in the house.
One of the most interesting types of Ficus tree is the F.aurea or Strangler Fig. This species has a symbiotic relationship with a host tree, such as a palm. The Ficus seed germination takes place in the canopy of another tree with the seedling living as an epiphyte (air plant) until its roots establish contact with the ground, after which the growing Fig enlarges and strangles its host, eventually becoming a freestanding tree in its own right. Individual strangler figs may reach 30 m (100 ft) in height.
Sacred Trees: From the earliest times, trees have been the focus of religious life for many people around the world. As the largest plant on earth, the tree has been a major source of stimulation to the mythic imagination. The Celts believed trees to be sources of sacred wisdom. Perhaps not surprisingly, trees appear at the foundations of many of the world’s religions. Because of their relative rarity in the Near East, trees are regarded in the Bible as something almost sacred and are used to symbolize longevity, strength, and pride. Elements of pagan tree cults and worship have survived into Judeo-Christian theology. In India, it is believed that the Brahma Daitya, the ghosts of brahmans, live in the fig trees, the pipal (ficus religiosa), or the banyan (ficus indica), awaiting liberation or reincarnation.
Most of these myths and practices point to an underlying identification of trees as receptacles for spirits or souls, a belief common in many cultures. Tall, resistant trees have frequently been identified with courageous or righteous humans; many examples are found in Biblical and Koranic texts. The tree of life is a widespread motif in many myths and folktales around the world, by which cultures sought to understand the human condition in relation to the divine and sacred realm. The tree of life, which grows above the ground and gives life to gods or humans, is often linked with a “centre” of the earth. It is probably the most ancient human myth, and is possibly a universal one.
Although veneration of certain trees or groves may persist in local traditions, tree worship has for the most part disappeared from the modern world. However, the symbols that remain in language, lore and culture serve as reminders of the rich relationship between human thought and the forest world. Modern concerns with conserving the forests are perhaps a natural extension of the logic of ancient tree rites. Yesterday’s sacred grove is today a biosphere reserve, a natural heritage site or protected area. Delving into the symbolic realm can often help to explain the links between ancient value systems and modern practices. When looking at the awesome Fig Tree it is easy to contemplate the spirit that created such a wondrous tree.
All photos are trees in Guayabitos.