The Australian banyan or Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla Pers.) is an arboreal species belonging to the Moraceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
F. macrophylla species.
The terms are synonyms:
– Ficus huegelii Kunth & C.D.Bouché.;
– Ficus macrocarpa Hügel ex Miq.;
– Ficus magnolioides Borzí;
– Ficus squamellosa (Miq.) Miq.;
– Urostigma macrophyllum (Desf.) Miq..
Within this species, two subspecies are known:
– Ficus macrophylla subsp. macrophylla;
– Ficus macrophylla subsp. columnaris C. Moore & F. Muell..
The term Ficus comes from the name, in classical Latin, of the fig tree, a genus already known at the time, probably derived from Hebrew.
The specific macrophylla epithet comes from the Greek μακρόϛ macrós long, large and from φύλλον phýllon leaf: with large leaves.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Ficus macrophylla is a plant native to the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales. The common name derives from the homonymous Australian Moreton Bay. In this area of eastern Australia, average temperatures range from 20–30°C in January to 10–20°C in July.
This tree is grown and naturalized in New Zealand, Hawaii, California and Florida. However, the specimens of these latter areas do not reach the same size as those of the original habitats.
In Italy it was introduced in Sicily in the nineteenth century and spread in various botanical gardens and city parks, including in Palermo.
Its typical habitat is that of subtropical, littoral and dry rainforests and riverine scrub, montane or coastal rainforests, often in soils derived from volcanoes or alluvials. In this environment, it often grows in the form of an epiphytic climber. In fact, when it germinates on the branch of a tree, it spreads its roots around the trunk of the host, suffocating it and eventually killing it in order to supplant it and take its place, hence the common name of “strangler tree”. In its natural habitat it looks like a tree of considerable size that can grow up to 60 m in height.
The Ficus macrophylla is a large evergreen tree, with a very expanded crown, with its characteristic appearance due to the development from its branches of columnar aerial roots which, reaching the ground, turn into additional trunks; these represent pillars that favor the support of the great weight acquired by the top of the tree. These roots are in any case absorption surfaces and the tree is therefore quite susceptible to compaction of the soil around the trunk, as occurs when it is fenced off outside parks and gardens.
Outside its habitat it can grow 22 to 55 meters high and 21 to 40 meters wide.
The leaves are similar to those of the magnolia, broad, oval-elliptical in shape, with a length of 10 to 25 cm, leathery in texture and dark green in colour; they are shiny on the upper side and silvery on the lower side.
It blooms in summer, but the flowers are inconspicuous.
The trees produce three types of flowers; male, one long-styled female, and one short-styled female, often called a gall. All three types of flower are contained within the structure that we normally consider the fruit.
The fruit is an edible syconium, similar in appearance to that of Ficus carica; it has an ovoid shape and is about 2 cm long; it has a green color that turns purplish when ripe with yellow-green patches. It is produced only from mature trees grown outdoors.
Ficus macrophylla is an evergreen tree that normally begins life in the forest as an epiphyte growing on the branch of another tree. As it grows, it sends out aerial roots that take root in the soil below, providing the plant with extra nutrition and allowing it to compete with the host tree and eventually suffocate it.
The tree is sometimes harvested from the wild for local use as a food and a source of latex and fiber. It is often cultivated as an ornamental plant and is usually planted in pairs for reasons of cross-pollination.
For its growth it needs annual daytime temperatures between 18 and 28 °C, but it can tolerate 10-34 °C.
Mature plants can be killed by temperatures of -8°C or lower, but new shoots can be severely damaged at 0°C.
It prefers an average annual rainfall between 1,200 and 1,500 mm, but tolerates between 1,000 and 1,700 mm.
It thrives in full sun and requires a large cultivation space, moreover being a plant that requires a lot of water, like many other Australian species, it should not be planted in urban environments, because its roots can destroy water pipes, nor in areas with scarcity of water resources.
From a soil point of view it prefers a pH in the range of 5 – 6, tolerating 4.5 – 6.5.
The tree has escaped cultivation in some areas and has invaded natural habitats.
The species-specific wasp (Pleistodontes froggatti) is needed for fruit fertilization and is introduced in the areas where figs are grown.
The female wasp enters a fig tree and lays her eggs on the short-stemmed female flowers while pollinating the long-stemmed female flowers. The male, wingless wasps emerge first, inseminate the emerging females, and then dig exit tunnels from the fig tree for the winged females. Females emerge, collect pollen from male flowers, and fly off in search of figs whose female flowers are receptive. To support a population of its pollinator, individuals of a Ficus spp. it must flower asynchronously. A population must exceed a critical minimum size to ensure that at any time of year at least some plants have an overlap of emitting and receiving fig wasps. Without this time overlap short-lived pollinator wasps will become locally extinct.
Propagation can occur by seed; this germinates best at a temperature around 20 °C or higher. The germination of the tiny seeds of F. macrophylla can take up to 3-4 months, in preferably humid environments.
It can also be propagated by tip cuttings about 4 – 12 cm long, taken from lateral branches, or with mature wood cuttings 10 – 12 cm. Rooting is easy enough, but we recommend placing the cuttings in individual pots.
In nature, dissemination can occur by some birds. Among these, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), the common myna (Acridotheres tristis), the zebra dove (Geopelia striata), the Streptopelia chinensis and the Zosterops japonicus have been reported. Other animals such as bats, pigs, rodents, parrots, and monkeys should be included as potential disseminators.
Customs and Traditions –
Ficus macrophylla is a plant which, although native to Australia, was then exported to other areas where, in some, it escaped cultivation by invading habitats typical of other species.
It was also imported into Europe and, in particular, into Italy.
Numerous of this species are found in Sicily.
In Palermo, in the Villa Garibaldi, there is a specimen planted in 1864 and considered by the Accademia dei Georgofili, with its 10,000 cubic meters of foliage, the largest tree in Europe; in Syracuse you can admire an imposing specimen in the archaeological area; in Catania there is an example in the Villa Bellini near the entrance to Piazza Roma.
Outside Sicily there are specimens in other regions.
In Liguria there are two impressive specimens, one of which was planted in 1880. These are located in the park of the Bicknell museum in Bordighera, headquarters of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies. The greatest concentration is found in the parks of the historic and public villas of Sanremo, with some specimens planted in the 1880s and 1890s.
In Sardinia, in the city of Cagliari, there are some specimens of considerable development in the part in front of the port area, in Piazza Amendola and in Piazza Matteotti. The specimens of the central Piazza Matteotti, between the Palazzo Civico, the port, the ARST bus station and the Ferrovie dello Stato station, were planted in 1883, at the time of setting up the garden on the occasion of the inauguration of the Royal Railway Station. Furthermore, four specimens characterize the central Piazza Repubblica of Carloforte on the island of San Pietro.
Also in Calabria there are numerous specimens of remarkable development and beauty; they are located on the Lungomare and in front of the Central station of Reggio, planted with the 1911 master plan created following the last earthquake.
This plant finds worldwide, as well as as an ornamental, various uses.
Among the edible uses, it should be noted that its fruits are eaten raw and are edible when fully ripe.
It is sweet and tasty, although most of the fruit is grainy seeds.
However, no medicinal uses are known.
Among the various uses we mention those in agroforestry.
The large massive root system can be very destructive to roads, paths and buildings and because of the potential damage the tree is now rarely planted.
Among other uses, the fiber obtained from the bark is very resistant and can be used to make bags, ropes, etc.
Also, if carefully stripped off, the inner bark can be used to form a loose tissue.
A latex obtained from the tree gives a very good quality rubber.
Heartwood is white to tan; the sapwood is pale. It is open grained, with a nice wavy figure over a darker brown. This wood is so beautiful, if properly selected, that it is a pity that it has no other properties to recommend it, being soft, porous and with little durability. Easily workable, it can be used for packing crates, etc.
In the Palermo botanical garden, in the early years of the last century, Antonino Borzì analyzed the latex of F. macrophylla subsp. columnaris as a possible source of rubber. But although the specimens of this species produced abundant quantities of latex, the chemical studies carried out revealed the presence of a very small quantity of elastic rubber.
Currently, the only use in Italy is as an ornamental tree, as the size, the shape of the crown and the stem make its presence in urban greenery suggestive.
Method of Preparation –
Ficus macrophylla is a plant that is used in some places to obtain its latex or to obtain fibers.
Among the food uses, its ripe and raw fruits are consumed while there is no news of medicinal uses.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.