The cluster fig is a tree that is part of the Moraceae family. The plant is native to Australia and Asia, in particular to India, Malaysia and other countries of South-eastern Asia. It has a special feature known as cauliflory, which means that its fruits grow directly from the trunk and very close to it.
The cluster fig tree is widespread in India, where it is one of the most important foods for the common macaque that lives in the area. It has different names that refer both to the tree and its figs: it is called atti in Southern India and gular in the North. Cluster fig is also important in the food chain in Australia, where it is eaten by the caterpillars of Euploea sylvester, or the two-brand crow butterfly.
The cluster fig is usually a beautiful tree, with a wide spreading crown and a specific crooked trunk. However, it has no aerial roots like the banyan or other similar trees. It is very easy to identify due to the large number of fruits. These grow directly from the trunk and are located in compact groups of red and hairy figs. It has a long history in India, where it is part of the Ayurveda, the medical system described in the ancient sacred texts. For this reason, it is still considered to be a sacred tree by Hindus and Buddhists all around the world.
Normally, the cluster fig is an evergreen tree but it can be deciduous in regions without a lot of rain. It can reach a height of up to 30 metres and usually has an asymmetrical trunk and crown. The trunk has a maximum diameter of about 90 cm and get many buttresses in time, in order to support the weight of the tree.
The cluster fig tree can be found in the wild but is also cultivated. Locals harvest the wild fruits that are used both as food and as medicine. Cluster figs are cultivated not only for their fruits but also as ornamental trees in gardens or in order to provide shade in plantations.
Bark, root, latex, fruits.
Cluster figs were valuable to the ancient ascetics who followed the Hindu or Buddhist faiths. They had to walk long distances through the forests of India on the way to Taksha Sila, and the figs were an important source of food. However, the ascetics were vegetarians and couldn't eat the wasps that could be found inside every fruit. They had to open the fruit, throw away the seeds inside and leave the rest in the sun for at least one hour. This is still a big problem today and the main reason why cluster figs are not sold in stores.
Besides the fruit, the bark of the cluster fig is also considered to possess significant healing qualities. In India, the bark is commonly used to prepare a cure against insect bites, which is effective and easy to make at home. The bark is first soaked in water then grounded on a stone until it becomes a paste. This paste can be applied directly on the areas of skin that are affected by insect bites, boils or infection. The paste must stay on the skin until it becomes dry and can be applied again after a few hours.
Many parts of the plant were featured in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system. The bark was used in the treatment of gynecological issues and considered to be galactagogue and cooling, while roots were a remedy against hydrophobia. The figs are a cure for diseases like urinary discharges, leprosy, burning sensation, fatigue, leucorrhoea, blood disorders, menorrhagia and epistaxis. They also act like a general tonic, have an astringent effect on the intestines and can remove internal worms. In the Unani medical system, fruits are used to treat conditions of the spleen and kidneys, as well as voice loss and dry cough. Leaves are considered good against bronchitis and have an astringent effect on the bowels, while the bark can heal piles and asthma. The sap of the tree can be applied directly on infected wounds to increase the rate of healing and reduce pain and inflammation. A paste prepared from the young leaf buds can improve the color of the skin.
Diarrhea can be treated using the leaves while the astringent bark is helpful against conditions like haemoptysis, haematuria or menorrhagia. The fruit also has astringent qualities and is equally good versus menorrhagia, haemoptysis or haematuria. Figs are considered very refreshing in India, when consumed filled with sugar. Cutting the roots of the tree will release a fluid that can be collected and consumed for several days in a row, for a strong tonic effect. In Bombay, the cluster fig sap is applied as a cure for gonorrhea and also on inflammations of the skin such as mumps. Tonsilitis can be cured by chewing the cluster fig roots. The Ovambo people of South Africa have a special name for the fig, eenghwiyu. Their traditional alcoholic drink named ombike is prepared from the figs.
The cluster fig has a diameter of up to 25 mm and can be eaten both raw and prepared and is sweet, without a strong taste. It is often used as an ingredient in side-dishes and preserves. The green fruits can be stored as pickles and later eaten in soups. It is also common to ground the figs into a powder similar to flour, in order to eat it later mixed with milk. Roasting and grounding the fruits produces another type of powder, popular for breakfast. During periods of famine, the figs were often prepared as a cake, mixed with flour. The leaves of the cluster fig tree are also edible and can be used as green vegetables, same as the young shoots, which can be consumed raw or cooked. Cutting the roots releases a liquid that can serve as a substitute for water.
Cluster fig trees can be found in many parts of the world. The cluster fig tree is common in rain forests at low altitudes, where it can form either the top canopy or grow under it. Wet forests are the best for many species of fig but some of them inhabit teak forests and a wide range of climates, from monsoon regions to dry places. The figs require either full sun or at least partial exposure to it and can grow in most types of well-drained soil, as long as it is at least moderately wet. The cluster fig tree can survive the devastating forest fires that often affect its native habitat.
All of the fig species are known for their very particular mechanism of pollination. Every species is bonded with a unique variety of wasp and they completely depend of each other for fertilization and reproduction. The fruit of the fig tree actually consists of three types of flowers: the short female flower (named the gall flower), a long female flower and a male flower. The purpose of this unusual setup is to respond to the needs of the wasps.
The female wasp lands inside the fig structure and deposits its eggs in the gall flower, pollinating the long female flowers in the process. From the eggs, the first born are the male fig wasps. They don't have wings and must complete two missions: to mate with the female wasps and to dig a tunnel in order to allow them to exit the fruit. As the young female wasps fly out, they carry the pollen from the male flowers of the cluster fig tree. They will eventually find another tree with available gall flowers, where they pollinate the long female ones and the entire cycle restarts. For the system to work, the cluster fig trees in a certain area must flower at different times. This will ensure that both gall flowers and male flowers will be available during the entire year, allowing the wasps to continue their reproduction cycle. Any dysfunction will kill the local wasp population and stop the pollination of the cluster fig trees.