Plants in the Garden: The Figs

The Fig family (Moraceae) is comprised of well over 1,000 species of trees, shrubs and creepers. Many live as epiphytes (hemiepiphytes) until they reach sufficient size and vigor to overwhelm their host, hence the common name “strangler fig.” The majority of the species are lowland tropicals and subtropicals, and many find homes in Florida gardens.

            Several of our large Ficus species were planted in Marie Selby’s day and are now over seventy years old. Ficus aurea, the Florida strangler fig, is widespread in Florida and the Caribbean region, and many consider it a pest. Several of these at Selby Gardens are in the process of murdering cabbage palms, a botanical drama usually not noted by our visitors. Ficus benghalensis, the true Banyan, is exceptional for its potentially amazing spread. A specimen at the Calcutta Botanical Garden is reportedly 1,000 feet in diameter. Ours is smaller. The Bo tree, Ficus religiosa, from southern Asia has a long cultural association with both Buddhists and Hindus. The plant is also known for the long-tailed apex (drip tip) of the leaf blade.

            Similar in appearance to Ficus are species of the genus Artocarpus. Breadfruit (A. altilis) and Jackfruit (A. heterophyllus) are two important tropical fruits, the former too cold-sensitive to be grown in the open anywhere in mainland Florida. The species A. nitidus, known by the Chinese name Kwai Muk, is a handsome salt and cold-tolerant tree cultivated at Selby Gardens.

            The one hundred or so species of Dorstenia are scarcely cultivated. Most are herbaceous subshrubs of forests but a few are semidesert succulents. Their most notable feature is their inflorescence, essentially a fig turned inside out. Dorstenia choconiana was collected in Southwest Costa Rica.