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The fig tree is nature’s humble hero

Mike Shanahan considers the fig tree to be the most important plant on the planet. He explains how it has shaped the world we live in, and why it will play a pivotal role in our future

One day in July 1999, while suffering mild hallucinations as a result of having taken malaria pills, I nearly drowned in a lake in the crater of an active volcano in Papua New Guinea. The fig trees made me do it. The incident was just one of several in which I had thrown caution to the wind in order to get near to these trees and their associated animals. It was a passion which led to my writing a book, Ladders to Heaven, all about this single species of plant.

Why would anyone write a book about fig trees? What if I told you that these trees have shaped our species and the world about us, that they are the most ecologically and culturally important group of plants on the planet, or that they could help us address some of the biggest challenges we face — from conserving rare wildlife to restoring ravaged rainforests and so limiting climate change? In the plant kingdom, fig trees really are first among equals.

A fig, you see, is not a fruit but a hollow ball lined with minuscule flowers

Most people are familiar with the common fig, but that is just one of more than 750 Ficus species. These plants have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They include the mighty strangler figs and the banyans, which can grow large enough to shelter several thousand people.

I first fell under the influence of these plants in the late 1990s in Borneo, where I was studying them for my PhD in rainforest ecology. I came to understand that fig trees play pivotal roles in the world’s rainforests, sustaining more species of wildlife than any other group of plants — including 1,300 species of birds and mammals. It’s all because 80 million years ago the fig trees formed an elegant partnership with some tiny stingless wasps.

LadderstoHeaven
Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan is out now (Unbound, £16.99)

A fig, you see, is not a fruit but a hollow ball lined with minuscule flowers. Each Ficus species depends on its own kinds of wasps to pollinate these flowers. The wasps meanwhile can breed only inside their partner tree’s figs. A side effect of this is that figs are available year-round — without figs, many wildlife species would suffer, as would thousands of other plant species whose seeds these animals disperse.

While the biology amazed me, I soon came to realise that figs were also connected to our own story in profound ways. Queen Elizabeth II was asleep up a fig tree when she inherited the throne. The Buddha attained enlightenment whilst meditating beneath one. And without figs to power their bodies, the Egyptians might never have built the pyramids.

In the colonial era, Britain used sacred fig trees as gallows to hang hundreds of Indian rebels. And in Kenya, rebels used a fig tree as a secret post office to plot against the British. Fig trees have played roles in the births of biology, of agriculture and of the first great civilisations. They feature in every major religion and have influenced diverse cultures all across the planet.

Across the tropics, you will find not only fig trees but also curious stories associated with the trees: stories of gods and miracles, of strange monsters and of terrible fates for anyone who harms the trees. When I learned about the many ways fig trees have influenced our own species, I became
compelled to write my book.

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The more I researched, the more these trees amazed me. As I dug deeper, I realised the ecological and spiritual importance of fig trees were linked. The trees were so deeply rooted in human
consciousness because they had been sustaining our ancestors since before they descended from the trees and walked upright. Some scientific research even suggests that eating figs helped our ancestors develop big brains and the opposable thumbs that allow us to make and use tools.

My book ties together these scientific, historical and cultural roots to show how profound an effect fig trees have had on humanity. They also have much to offer us today. The fig trees on the volcano in Papua New Guinea, for example, revealed themselves to be powerful biological forces, capable of
colonising bare black larva and encouraging rainforest to form by attracting many fig-eating birds and mammals that bring the seeds of other species.

Figs are providing medicines and materials or intangible cultural values

Across the planet scientists are now seizing this power, using fig trees to kick-start rainforest regeneration in areas that have been logged. Elsewhere, figs are providing medicines and materials or intangible cultural values. These trees all help to boost local biodiversity.

In a time of rising temperatures and falling trees, their story offers rare reasons for hope. It’s a story everyone should know, not least because it is linked to every one of us in some way. It offers a powerful lens through which we can examine our own place in nature, as well as our future and our past.

Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan is out now (Unbound, £16.99)

Image: Fig tree is Gunung Palung National Park. Tim Laman, Natural History Museum