Ficus sur Forssk.
Common names: broom cluster fig (Eng.); besem-trosvy (Afr.); mogo-tshetlo (North Sotho); umkhiwane (Xhosa); umkhiwane (Zulu)
SA Tree No: 50
The broom cluster fig is a key element in the environment providing medicine, food, shade and shelter for all nature of animals, large and small. This majestic giant stands proud alongside rivers and waterways throughout the eastern and northern regions of southern Africa.
Ficus sur is a large, fast-growing, evergreen tree, reaching up to 35 m high, with large, oval, green leaves borne on a massive, spreading crown. Figs are produced from September to March (South Africa) they are borne in large clusters mostly low down on the trunk and can even appear at ground level arising from the roots.
Distribution and habitat
This species is widely distributed from North Africa to Western Cape in South Africa. It is usually found on riverbanks or in riverine forest but can also be found in drier woodlands. It is restricted to frost-free areas with moderate rainfall.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ficus is the Latin name for the cultivated fig; sur from an area in Ethiopia named Sur.
Figs form a large and widespread group of mostly trees across the warm temperate regions to the tropics. Most notable is the common cultivated fig (Ficus carica) which is referred to in the Bible. All South African figs are edible, although they are not all palatable and are often infested with insects and larvae. Characteristic of all figs is the copious white latex, which is secreted from any damaged part of the plant.
This interesting group of trees contains members who have different methods of survival. In the group known as strangler figs, a seed germinates in the leaf litter accumulated in another tree, usually in the axis between two branches. The fig sapling develops roots down the trunk of the host tree until reaching the ground. Once the roots enter the ground the fig grows aggressively and strangles its host, eventually causing its demise and occupying its place in the forest.
Another group known as rock splitters are highly adept at germinating in tiny cracks or fissures in inhospitable rock faces and cliffs. They exert tremendous hydraulic pressure with their roots splitting the rocks apart to make space for their expanding and aggressive root system.
Many different and interesting features can be found in the genus Ficus: a riverine fig from Mozambique, F. cyathistipua, has a thick, buoyant layer surrounding the fig, which enables the figs to float downstream, thus facilitating dispersal; the swamp fig, F. trichopoda, which grows in swampy conditions, elevates its trunk out of the swampy environment by developing prop roots, which extend well above the marshy substrate; the banyan fig, F. benghalensis, is noted for its ability to send down aerial roots from the branches which, when touching the ground, thicken considerably to form thick trunk-like props to support the weight of the heavy branches. This fig is also regarded as sacred by certain Middle Eastern religions and spiritual rituals are performed under this tree.
Reproduction in the fig family is interesting in that the fig we know and eat is not a fruit but rather an inside-out flower stalk (syconium) containing many flowers inside the fruit-like structure. It is a closed structure with only a small opening at one end through which a small female wasp enters and lays her eggs in special infertile flowers, while inadvertently pollinating the fertile flowers and gathering pollen in special sacs. She then leaves through the opening again and carries the pollen to another fig. It is also very interesting that each species of fig has its own specific species of wasp that pollinates it. The seed is small and swallowed together with the fruit by the many birds and mammals which greedily consume it. It is then passed in the faeces normally some distance away from the parent tree, effectively distributing the species further afield.
The relatively large figs of the broom cluster fig are produced around September and ripen around December and are readily eaten by local people when they turn pinkish and soft. Fig jam (or preserve) can also be made from the fruits. Local people claim that the fruits which form on the roots are the sweetest. The wood is used as a base by bushmen as part of the equipment necessary when igniting fire by friction. The wood of the broom cluster fig is soft and white and has been used for making mortars for grinding flour as well as making drums. It's soft texture made it ideal for the making of brake blocks and bed boards for ox wagons. In modern times this tree is used most extensively as a shade tree. It is believed to have magical powers and is used in many rituals by local people.
The inner bark is used to make rope while lung and throat problems are treated using the milky latex found in live growth. The milky latex is also administered to cows with poor milk production. The tree is also used as a magical cure for boils. The root of the tree is reportedly used to assist when a cow retains part of the placenta after giving birth.
Growing Ficus sur
As with most figs it is inadvisable to plant the broom cluster fig near buildings, paving, sewer lines or walls as they may damage them with their aggressive root system. It is important to bear in mind that this is a large tree and needs a lot of space and is therefore not suited to limited spaces. The broom cluster fig is ideally suited to large estates such as golf courses and parklands. The tree is fast growing and enjoys plenty of water and full sun, however it is a forest species and therefore can tolerate partial shade especially when the trees are young.
Due to its popularity with birds and insects the broom cluster fig is the ideal tree for the wildlife garden. When the figs are ripe it is reminiscent of a bird-feeding table as all nature of fruit-eating creatures scramble in a mad frenzy to obtain their share of the sweet bounty produced by the tree. Fruit bats are particularly fond of the figs and even some insectivorous birds such as the Puffback shrike reportedly take the fruit. Elephants also sometimes eat the leaves and twigs.
The seed can be obtained by cleaning it away from the fruity part of the fig, this can then be sown on a fine medium and not covered. The seed germinates quickly and seedlings can be transplanted once they are a few centimetres high. Once planted into larger containers the saplings grow fast and may stand about 1 m or more after their second year of growth at which time they may be planted out into open ground in frost-free areas. In areas with light frost it is best to allow saplings to attain a height of 2 m plus in the nursery before planting out after which they should be protected from frost in the first or even second year or until they are large enough to withstand it. The broom cluster fig will not tolerate moderate or severe frost.
Cuttings and truncheons can also be rooted with relative ease, these should be taken in the spring and rooted in sharp sand. Mature trees of considerable size have been transplanted with success, although large trees inevitably have to be severely pruned to facilitate transplanting, often scarring them for life. In such cases it is probably better to plant young trees, which will grow fast and make more beautiful, mature specimens.
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- VENTER, F. & VENTER., J. 1985. Making the most of indigenous trees. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- VON BREITENBACH, J., DE WINTER, B., POYNTON, R., VAN DEN BERG, E., VAN WYK, B., & VAN WYK, E. 2001. Pocket list of southern African indigenous trees: Including selected shrubs and woody climbers. 1st abridged impression of edn 4. Briza Publications & Dendrological Foundation, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer, Sporadic/All year
Flower colour: Green
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy