Ficus microcarpa, also known as Chinese Banyan, Indian Laurel or Curtain Fig is a banyan tree native to India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia and Australia.

It is an evergreen tree with a rounded dense crown that grows to 15 m or more in height. The bark is smooth and grey in colour. It has milky sap and long, thin, dangling aerial roots.

Ficus microcarpa has been widely planted as street trees and in front of schools and government buildings.

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Ficus microcarpa planted in front of a high school in Sydney.
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Ficus microcarpa planted in a primary school in Sydney
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This old tree possesses aerial prop roots that can grow into thick woody trunk with age.
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A close-up image of the aerial prop roots

 

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The smooth grey tree trunk

 

Leaves alternate, simple, leathery, deep glossy green, oval-elliptic to diamond-shaped, to about 6 cm long, with short pointed, ridged tips.

Flowers very tiny, unisexual, numerous, hidden within the ‘fig’ or syconium.

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A few young syconia grow close together on a branchlet

The urn-shaped syconium is a fleshy, specialized receptacle that harbours the tiny unisexual flowers.

In Chinese the fig is called wú huā guǒ (無花果), “fruit without flower”. This is not accurate. Figs should be called fruit with hidden flowers (隱花果).

A tiny hole called an ostiole in the tip of the syconium allows minute symbiotic wasps to enter. The wasps pollinate the flowers and lay their eggs within the the flowers. In Ficus mircocarpa, the size of the syconium is small and is about 1 cm in diameter. It is sessile, ie directly attached to at the leaf axils. The colour turns from green to yellow and finally dark pink when ripe.

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The young synconium cut vertically into halves to show the minute flowers inside.
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The inside of the syconium. The brown dot on the top is the ostiole (hole) through which wasps enter the syconium.
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A mature syconium
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The mature synconium cut vertically open to show the flowers.
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The minute unisexual flowers seen under the microscope. Those on the top may be male flowers and those at the bottom may be female flowers.

In late summer (February in Sydney), the syconia mature, detach from the branchlets and fall onto the ground. Footpaths near the trees are covered with crushed syconia and seeds. This makes the footpath colourful and is quite a special scene, some may say chaotic.

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Crushed syconia and seeds scattered along the footpath under the trees make the footpath colourful.

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Ficus macrophylla (alternative scientific name Ficus macrocarpus) is commonly known as Moreton Bay Fig, Australian Banyan or Fig Wood. It is a tall tree with a huge trunk, growing to about 50 m.

Ficus macrophylla is native to tropical Queensland and northern New South Wales in Australia.

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Ficus macrophylla in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney
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The same tree showing the long aerial prop roots
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Close-up view of the aerial prop root
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Aerial root that may eventually provide structural support

The tree starts life as a seedling growing high on existing trees and slowly strangles them as its roots reach the ground. Ficus macrophylla is often planted as a shade tree in parks and large gardens. The roots spread widely and will damage pipes and paths.

The leaves are simple, ovate-elliptical or oblong-elliptical. The leaf blade, is glossy dark-green above, brownish below, 10-25 cm long with a blunt point at the apex.

 

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The leaves with syconia

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The syconia (figs) are orange to purple with creamy white dots, globular, up to 2.5 cm in diameter. Each syconium attaches to the branchlet with a stalk. The syconia ripe over several months of the year.

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A green syconium cut vertically open to show the minute flowers inside
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The minute flowers at the periphery of the syconium seen under microscope
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The minute flowers at the middle of the syconium seen under microscope

 

The figs are eaten by birds and other animals. The Aborigines in Australia consume the sweet fruit as bush food.

The fibres from the wood were used by the Aborigines for making nets.

This species has been widely introduced to many foreign places like California for growing as street trees and landscaping. The drought tolerant banyan trees grow well but do not grow as large as trees in their native habitat.

 

Ficus microcarpa has also been widely grown as bonsai.

A ‘bonsai’ is a plant, usually a tree or a shrub, grown in a small container and made to look like a miniature of the mature tree through the use of various training techniques. The original word ‘bonsai’ comes from the Chinese word ‘pén zāi’ (盆栽). Sometimes a nice piece of rock is put side by side with the little tree in the container. As a bonsai has great aesthetic value and looks like a small representation of the natural landscape, it is commonly called ‘pén jǐng’  (盆景) .

A bonsai of Ficus microcarpa. Imagers from http://www.bonsaioutlet.com/ficus-bonsai-care/ Black photo : http://www.bonsaitreegardener.net/types/ficus ,
A bonsai of Ficus microcarpa. Image comes from http://www.bonsaioutlet.com/ficus-bonsai-care/

A bonsai of Ficus microcarpa. Image comes from http://www.bonsaioutlet.com/ficus-bonsai-care/
A bonsai of Ficus microcarpa. Image comes from http: //www.bonsaitreegardener.net/types/ficus

 

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A bonsai of Carmona microphylla (Fukien tea tree) (福建茶) clinging to rock

 

Fine art of the banyan trees

Anne Woodham 'The Shadow on The Big Tree'. Graphite on paper, 20.5 x 15 cm
Anne Woodham ‘The Shadow on The Big Tree’. Graphite on paper, 20.5 x 15 cm. (For more information about the art of Anne Woodham, please visit her website: http://www.annewoodham.co.uk http://http://www.annewoodham.co.uk/index.aspx)

 

Li Xiongcai (黎雄才) (1910 - 2001), A sketch of roots of old banyan tree (老榕樹根), ink on paper. Image taken from Li Xiongcai's Landscape Painting Manual (1981)
Li Xiongcai (黎雄才) (1910 – 2001), A sketch of roots of old banyan tree (老榕樹根), ink on paper. Image taken from Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting Manual (1981)
Li Xiongcai (黎雄才) (1910 - 2001), A sketch of old tree trunks (probably banyan trees), ink on paper. Image taken from Li Xiongcai's Landscape Painting Manual (1981)
Li Xiongcai (黎雄才) (1910 – 2001), A sketch of old tree trunks (probably banyan trees), ink on paper. Image taken from Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting Manual (1981)

 

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Mr Andrew Orme of The Royal Botanic Gardens for helping me to identify the trees.

 

Bibliography

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syconium

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficus

http://www.bonsaiempire.com/tree-species/ficus (CARE GUIDE FOR THE FICUS BONSAI TREE) This webpage gives more information about bonsai. 

Li Xiongcai (1981) Li Xiongcai’s Landscape Painting Manual (黎雄才山水畫譜 上篇 樹木) 嶺南美術出版社

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