NATIVE FIGS: FOOD FOR WILDLIFE

Published in Nimbin Good Times. September 2004.

Nimbin Plant Selection Guide

David McMinn


The genus Ficus contains some of the most spectacular rainforest species in our local region.
With their strangling mass of roots and dark green glossy leaves, they are a wonderful sight to behold on any rainforest walk. They were often planted by the original farmers for shade and stock shelter and most of the old farm houses in the Nimbin valley have a few large, mature fig trees around them. Importantly, native figs are a key component of the ecology in local rainforests, as they produce masses of fruit which are avidly eaten by birds and fruit bats. It is vital for people to include native figs in their rainforest plantings to provide wildlife food and help improve the local ecology.

There are two basic types of figs. The stranglers begin life as an epiphyte high up in the branches of a tree. Roots of the fig grow slowly down the trunk. Once they reach the ground, the roots thicken and form a lattice work around the trunk of the host tree eventually strangling it. The other type of figs are the non stranglers, which grow in the ground or over rocks.  

The large growing species are only suitable for parks, farms, huge gardens and so forth. In household gardens, their invasive root systems and size will present problems for water pipes, telephone lines and building foundations. Only the creek sandpaper fig may be considered for small allotments. You may like to use native fig species as pot plants, instead of the ubiquitous rubber plant (F elastica) or weeping fig (F benjamina). With proper care they may be kept in containers for years and then planted out when they become too large. Ficus species can also make highly desirable bonsai specimens. 

All Ficus species may be planted directly in the ground with slow release fertiliser, regular watering and good mulching.
However, they must be given sufficient space, as most species grow into very large trees. Stranglers may also be established in the fork of an old tree. This must be done during the wet season with plenty of leaf litter, so that the plant becomes well established before the dry season. Another alternative is the place a staghorn (an epiphytic fern) high up on the trunk of a camphor laurel and plant a Ficus seedling in the fern. The fig will grow and strangle the camphor tree, although you have to be patient as this will take years. People living in drier areas should choose those species found in dry rainforests, such as Port Jackson Fig, Deciduous Fig and Sandpaper Fig.

You should avoid planting exotic figs as they usually do not set fruit in Australia, thus denying wildlife a vital food source. Each Ficus species is pollinated by its own exclusive wasp species. For exotic figs, these insects are not present in Australia and fruit/viable seed will not be produced. This is probably just as well because large, fast growing species, such as the rubber tree (F elastica), could have potential to become an invasive weed in the local rainforests.   
   

A complete list of figs native to the Northern Rivers is presented, as well as the small leaved fig (F microcarpa) from south east Queensland. If you have sufficient room, plant several species so that the wildlife will have fruit over much of the year. At the end of each description is a summary: height (m), growth rate (moderate/fast) and fruiting season. Rainforest type is also indicated by STR (Subtropical Rainforest), DR (Dry Rainforest) and LR (Littoral Rainforest). Native figs are usually propagated from fresh seed, although some species may be grown from cuttings.

Creek Sandpaper Fig (F coronata). A bushy, small growing species often found along creeks hence its common name. It is a non strangler and is less invasive than the larger fig trees. The fruit is apparently edible for humans, with a few plants producing sweet fruit comparable with the commercial fig (F carica). Even so, variability is the major problem as most trees yield inferior fruit covered with irritating hairs. It does best with plenty of water and good soils, being excellent for stream bank regeneration. 8-10m. Fast. Jan Sept. STR, LR, DR. Seed/cuttings.

Sandpaper Fig
(F fraseri). A common, fast growing species that will often self regenerate. The tree is a valuable food source for birds, especially as the fruit is produced in spring when food from other sources is limited. It is easy to grow and plants will establish quickly in moist fertile soils. May be briefly deciduous in cold areas. 6-15m. Fast. May Feb. STR, LR, DR. Seed/cuttings.

Moreton Bay Fig (F macrophylla) is a very large growing species, with a massive grey trunk and spreading branches. 20m. Moderate. Feb May. STR, LR, DR. Seed.

Small Leaved Fig (F microcarpa, var hilli) is a medium to large tree, which grows in warmer areas, especially in littoral rainforest. 20m, Fast. September - October. STR, LR. Seed/cuttings. 

Small Fruited Fig (F obliqua). Medium to very large tree growing in warmer lowland areas. 15-20m. Moderate. Feb- July. STR, LR. Seed.

Port Jackson Fig
or Rusty Fig (F rubiginosa) is a non strangling fig, which is often found growing over rocky outcrops. The fruit is an important food source for many bird species. The Rock Fig (F platypoda) from Queensland is now included within this species. Port Jackson Fig is suitable to grow in harsh, dry conditions and is more cold tolerant than other large figs. 15-30m. Moderate. Feb July
. STR, LR, DR. Seed/cuttings.

Deciduous Fig (F superba var henneana) is strangling fig found in drier rainforests. Trees have a short deciduous period. 15-20m. Moderate. Jan Aug. STR, LR, DR. Seed.

White Fig (F virens) Medium to large tree, which grows as a strangler or on rock outcrops. 20m. Moderate. June Oct. STR. Seed/tip cuttings.

Nipple Fig (F watkinsiana) is a common species in the Northern Rivers region, growing into a very large tree. 20-30m. Moderate. July Sept. STR, LR. Seed.

Copyright.   2004. David McMinn. All rights reserved.