The Tree of Life - Ecology and Mythology of the Fig Tree

Updated: Mar 27, 2019

A tree rooted deep within the theology of humanity is the fig tree. The largest ethnic group in Kenya known as the Kikuyu derive their name from the word Gĩkũyũ, meaning ‘massive fig’. The sycamore fig (Ficus sycamorus) in this case. This same sycamore fig is represented in early Egyptian myth and symbology as ‘The Tree of Life’. In Asia, the sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) represents the Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became known as Gautama Buddha. In the ecological system, most fig trees are known as keystone species, meaning that their effect on the environment is disproportionately larger than many other plant species. They feed an abundance of animal life in the wilderness and some animal species are mostly reliant on them. Mammals, birds and insects all benefit from the presence of this tree. Each species of a fig tree is in a mutualistic relationship with either one or a few fig wasp species. Within the roughly 850 species variety of fig trees, their strategy for survival is diverse. This article discusses the ecological effect, spiritual impact and life of the Ficus genus.

The ficus genus comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some fig trees simply grow from the ground while others germinate high in the branches of other trees after being deposited in bird droppings or mammal faeces. These then grow down to the ground and use an older tree as support. Other fig species germinate in the ground and grab onto a neighbouring tree for support, eventually cutting ties with their original root system. In some cases, the host tree is spared, in others, the host tree is parasitised on. The host tree then dies and its trunk is used as a skeletal support, such as with strangler fig species. Rock figs root into cracks of boulders, growing massive root systems that penetrate and crack stone. The wood is relatively soft in order to be more flexible. This flexibility allows the tree to grow into, around and on top of other trees and boulders. Some ficus species are classified as vines that often do not parasitise on its host. The diverse genus of ficus can only be outshined by the massive amount of animal life that utilise, feed off and rely on the fig trees for their survival.

Image Link

As stated above, the Ficus genus plays a keystone role in many forested areas. The plant specialises in providing fruit more than once a year. The second production of fruit in a year is usually superior in quality and taste, while some inedible fig trees may produce fruit up to three times a year. These are inedible to humans and less favoured by other creatures than the edible fig types. When the fruit of fig trees are plenty, some birds feed almost solely on the figs produced. This includes the iconic hornbills, fruit-eating pigeons, barbets, parrots and much more. Fruit bats and monkeys revere the fruits produced by fig trees and like the birds, aid in distributing the seeds of the tree far and wide. The fruit that falls down to ground are eaten by terrestrial herbivores and omnivores alike, and even by fish when the fruit falls into the water. Some reptile species, such as rock leguaans also cherish the fruit. The fruit itself attracts life of all kinds to its presence. Beautifully patterned butterflies and moths of a wide variety lay their eggs on ficus trees. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars have all the leaf matter they require to pupate and transform. Multiple beetles and flies also utilise the tree to breed and consume. All this life, of course, attract predators of the insect, bird, reptile and mammal variety. This tree is clearly a hub of life, where all forms of animals centralise to partake in the bounty and richness of the ficus tree. The fruits are highly nutritious in most species, containing a variety of vitamins and minerals in its fleshy core and seeds. It is this packet of sugars and nutrients that provide energy to such a variety of not just animal life, but also human life.

Each tree is in a mutualistic relationship with a particular species of wasp that acts as its pollinator. It is debated that some ficus species are, however, pollinated by multiple fig wasp species. These fig wasps comprise of some of the smallest insects in the world and in many regions are the smallest insect. It is this tiny size that allows the wasp to enter an infertile fig flower pod (syconium) and pollinate it. A tiny opening (ostiole) at the apex of the flower provides an entrance for the fig wasps. Without the specific wasp, the tree will not be pollinated. This is an example of coevolution among species. Once a new queen wasp is ready she enters the opening, at times losing a limb or antenna due to forcing herself inside. Once inside she pollinates the fig, lays her eggs and injects the flower with a chemical that turns to flower into fatty galls which will provide food for her offspring. After this, she dies and her body is absorbed and digested by the flower. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the flower until they are able to pupate. Once they are mature, the males and females of the specific fruit mate. The males are wingless, blind and have a duty to dig a hole out of the fig from where the females can escape. Having served their purpose, the males are fated to die. The female fig wasps escape the fruit and collect pollen while doing so. The fate of the female wasp is to become a queen wasp of her own. They travel to other appropriate fig tree species and pollinate it accordingly, as to ensure the continuation of their life cycle. It is clear then, that fig trees promote and in some cases ensure the survival of a large portion of biodiversity in their regions. It is because of this life-giving property of the tree that it has been revered and symbolised in multiple human cultures throughout the world.

The sycamore fig was cultivated in early Egyptian civilisation for its fruit and used to symbolise the Tree of Life. The tree symbolises the hidden mysteries of life, the levels of creation and eating of its fruit is said to grant immortality. As stated by Manly P. Hall, ‘Though humanity is still wandering in a world of good and evil, it will ultimately attain completion and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life growing in the midst of the illusionary garden of worldly things. Thus the Tree of Life is also the appointed symbol of the Mysteries, and by partaking of its fruit man attains immortality.’ The tree is often depicted with nine fruit, flowers or branches, representing the hierarchal order of the cosmos and its enclosure within a sphere or egg of creation. This concept is depicted in many mysteries and mythologies, some using different trees according to geographic location. Such as Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, the Bodhi tree in Buddhism and even the Tree of Life in Kabbalah. To the Kikuyu people of Africa, even their name is derived from the sycamore fig. Their creator Ngai or Mwene-Ngai is said to have a direct relationship with the sycamore fig and it was from it that the Kikuyu people were created. They are known as the children of the sycamore fig. Ngai is their creator that cannot be seen but is manifested within all of the celestial bodies of the heavens, all life and events on earth. All ceremonies and sacrifices to Ngai are made beneath a sycamore fig. This religious fascination with the fig tree can perhaps be attributed to a large amount of serotonin within its fruit and its chemical connection to the pineal gland.

Image Link

The pineal gland is known for spiritual experience, psychic qualities and perception of other realms. In eastern philosophy, this is referred to as the third eye or Anja chakra, or in western philosophy Descartes’ ‘seat of the soul’. Figs contain a high amount of serotonin which the human body changes into melatonin. Both of these chemicals have an interesting relationship with the pineal gland. Serotonin is produced naturally to some extent within the gut, intestinal tract and within the pineal gland itself. At night, serotonin is converted into melatonin within the pineal gland. Serotonin and melatonin both directly affect circadian rhythms or day-night sleep cycles within humans. Their effects as neurotransmitters play a vital role in a variety of functions, including sexual desire, mood and more. However, the real interest in these chemicals is their associations with spiritual experiences and psychic phenomena, such as lucid dreaming and astral projection. The chemical arrangement of serotonin is very close to that of the well know psychedelic LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), while melatonin is very similar in construction to DMT (dimethyltryptamine). Both of these substances are known as powerful psychoactive compounds and are closely tied to the spiritual movement of both modern day and antiquity. DMT is even referred to as ‘The Spirit Molecule’ as it is said to induce out-of-body experiences and connections to higher states of consciousness. Is it possible that this effect on human consciousness was known by ancient civilisations and consequently used in their appropriate symbology.

It is clear that within ecology, myth and mysticism, fig trees are highly revered and respected. They provide energy and opportunity for a diverse array of animal life to flourish with their presence. They are intimately tied to the existence of many species that feed off of the plant, especially in the case of fig wasps whose sole existence in attributed to their mutualistic relationship with specific ficus species. In various mythologies, the fig tree represents the connection to other worlds and to a creator. It symbolises correspondence between various levels of creation and the attainment of enlightenment and immortality. The fruits themselves provide life for many creatures, but also knowledge and spiritual experience for human beings. The tree is certainly sacred.

Cover Image Link

#spiritualplants #ethnobotany #spiritualplant #figtree #sacredtree #keystonespecies #ecology #figtreemythology #conservation #amazingnature #scientificplant #culturalpractices #nature