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Common Trees of the Year 2016

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Ficus Burkei Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaFicus Burkei Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaAccording to SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) the official list for trees of the year, which was developed several years ago by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, the 2016 common tree of the year is Ficus thonningii. However, recent phylogenetic evidence suggests that several distinct Ficus species are classified as F, thonningii. F. thonningii was described from Ghana and is restricted to West Africa. Two southern African species, F. burkei and F. petersii, previously synonymised under F. thonningii, are regarded as good species and are therefore listed as the 2016 trees of the year.

If the trees of the year are not suitable for your garden, you may want to take a look at our list of indigenous trees to find the perfect tree for your garden and region. If you don’t have space to plant a tree, try to plant anything indigenous, even a small groundcover will do! Our plant index has an excellent selection of indigenous plants. Members have full access, so if you have not signed up yet click here to learn more. 

Burke's Fig, Common Wild Fig, Gewone Wildevye, Umthombe, Mmadintana, Moumo, Muumo, Umtende (Ficus burkei)
 
Description, History & Interesting Facts:

This beautiful tree is widespread in Africa, and in South Africa it occurs from the Eastern Cape, north to KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West Province. It can be found in wet or dry forests, Savanna woodland, and rocky hillsides, up to an altitude of 1800 meters. South African fig wasps pollinate the trees, and some of the non-pollinating wasp species have also colonized planted populations, promoting the natural spread of this tree into the more arid western regions, and winter rainfall areas of the country. Ficus burkei was named after Joseph Burke (1812-1873) a British naturalist who collected a specimen from the Magaliesberg in 1841, while on an expedition.

Burke’s fig is a medium to large sized tree, 10 to 18m tall, with a well-shaped crown that can spread twice as wide as it is tall. In wetter habitats it remains evergreen but may be briefly deciduous in drier climates. Like others in the Ficus genus, it shares a common "strangling" growth habit that is found in many tropical forest species. This adaption enables the plant to find sufficient light and nutrients in the tough competition of other trees growing in their native jungle habitat. Because the fruits of Ficus trees are relished by birds, and dispersed by them far and wide, they often fall into the crevices between the branches of other trees, where they germinate and attach themselves to their host.  So, these trees often begin life as what is called “hemiepiphytes”- a plant that spends part of its life cycle as an epiphyte. An epiphyte is a plant that grows harmlessly upon another plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. Later the tree starts sending roots downward, enveloping the host tree, while at the same time growing upward to reach into the sunlight zone above the canopy. The host tree now supplies the fig with nutrients and eventually, when the roots make contact with the ground and expand even further into the soil, the host plant is strangled and dies, leaving the fig to carry on growing without competition. As the host plant decomposes, it leaves large and sometimes even enormous cavities between the strangler’s roots.   Some Ficus species are also known as “rock splitters”, because if they germinate in the crack of a boulder, the plant will eventually split the boulder as it grows. These adaptable trees can also grow as terrestrials if the seed falls onto the soil and germinates.

The bark is pale to dark grey and smooth but gets rougher as the tree ages, often with aerial roots hanging down from branches. The leathery green leaves are usually hairless, elliptic in shape, and vary in length from 3 to 12cm long. Both the bark and leaves contain a white sticky latex. As with all figs, the flowers are found within the fruit. The yellowish figs can be densely hairy to almost hairless, and can be found singly, or in pairs, and are almost round, 10 to 20mm in diameter. The tree provides deep shade and, when the fruit ripens, attracts a multitude of birds, monkeys, baboons, and also bats. When the fruit drops, it is enjoyed by bushpigs and warthogs, as well as antelope such as bushbuck, duiker, nyala and klipspringer. A number of other small mammals also forage around the tree, and not forgetting humans who also eat the fruit!

Peters' Fig, Peters se Wildevy, Uhoro, Uluzi, Umthombe (Ficus petersii)
This species occurs in Kenya and Tanzania through Malawi, northern Mozambique, southern Zambia to northern Botswana, south eastern Angola and north eastern Namibia; with an outlying population in north eastern South Africa, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. It can reach 15m+ with an even wider spread, and produces small velvety figs, which turn yellow when ripe. A tree in full fruit is truly a spectacular sight! It has diverse economic and environmental uses across many faming and pastoral communities in Africa. Because it produces large amounts of highly nutritious foliage all year round, it is a very good source of dry fodder for livestock. The fruit, as well as the leaves, twigs and even the bark can be used, but their nutritional value varies with the seasons. Because it grows in tropical and subtropical climates, its growth habit, growth requirements and uses are the same as for Ficus burkei.

Uses:

Not only can a delicious jam can be made from the ripe fruits, the branches of Ficus can be used for firewood and a “bark cloth” is obtained by cutting out a strip of bark, which causes the tree to produce a fine, matted covering of red, slender roots over the wound. This is removed by local people and used for making mats, or twined to produce a strong rope. The creamy-brown wood is light and soft to moderately hard, with a rough texture. Although it is strong, easy to work, finishes smoothly and holds nails firmly; its durability is low, and it is easily attacked by termites. In local medicine the bark, latex and powdered rood is used to treat many ailments, including: colds, sore throat, dysentery, wounds, constipation, nosebleeds and eye cataracts. If cut or damaged, the plant exudes a copious amount of milky latex or rubber, which is useful for rural peoples; and the sticky juice from the pounded roots are used to trap small animals like hares and birds. Livestock also enjoy eating the dry or fresh leaves which drop to the ground.  

Ficus Burkei Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaFicus Burkei Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaFicus Burkei Picture courtesy www.kumbulanursery.co.zaIn the Garden:

Ficus species are highly recommended shade trees, often used on farms, large estates, schools, recreational areas, and at roadside layovers or picnic stops. If truncheons are planted closely together, they can stabilise the soil on slopes and prevent soil erosion. Because they have aggressive root systems, they should not be planted in a small garden or near buildings, swimming pools or pathways. The fruits ooze latex when broken off, so they are also not suitable for car parks, and should not be planted near dams or fish ponds, as the latex clogs the gills of fish. If your garden is too small for a Ficus, why not grow it in a large container on the patio, or train it into a bonsai.

Cultivation:

Ficus thrive in the warmer regions of South Africa but will tolerate moderate frost if covered until established. They love growing in full sun but will tolerate semi-shade.  Although they are moderately drought tolerant once mature, specimens do best if watered moderately during long, dry spells. Although they are evergreen, in drier climates they may shed leaves temporarily. Ficus species are very tolerant of most soil types but thrive on deep, moist and fertile soils. They are fast growing and if necessary, can be pruned back periodically.

Propagation:

Ficus is propagated quite easily from seed, air layering and large cuttings (20 to 50cm). Propagation is easy by taking cuttings up to 5 mm diameter and 20 to 50cm long, and can be done most times of the year from any suitably branched tree. Cut the base at an angle to expose more cambium and remove most of the lower leaves before dipping the cut end into a rooting hormone and burying it almost right up to the top leaves, in a fairly large pot or a pre-dug hole, filled with washed river sand. Keep the sand constantly moist and the cuttings should root within 6 to 8 weeks, but may only be ready to transplant a year later. Before collecting seed, allow it to mature on the trees, then pick and dry the mature figs. Open the fruits to release and scatter the seeds, or simply lightly cover the entire fig with soil, planting it where it is to grow.

Pests & Diseases:

The larval stages of a variety of insects feed on the leaves or figs of Ficus species, including caterpillars of butterflies and moths, some of which have developed remarkable strategies to overcome the sticky latex contained in the leaves.  Beetle larvae of the fig tree borer beetle bore into the branches and trunks, often targeting water-stressed, damaged, or older trees. Branches, leaves and fruit may be attacked by scale insects, mealybugs and fruit fly. Fungi can attack the genus, including: root rots, branch wilt and canker, leaf rusts, branch and foliage blights, fruit surface mould and spot rot. Most of the above are of minor importance and in the wild most trees survive just fine. If absolutely necessary, the trees can be sprayed with chemical sprays, but this would disrupt the natural cycle of life which these trees support, and is not recommended if you wish to attract wildlife. The tree is also susceptible to soil nematodes, and should not be grown in infested soil.

Warning:

The white, sticky sap of the fig family may cause a rash. Sensitive individuals may develop dermatitis after contact with the sap.

If the trees of the year are not suitable for your garden, you may want to take a look at our list of indigenous trees to find the perfect tree for your garden and region. If you don’t have space to plant a tree, try to plant anything indigenous, even a small groundcover will do! Our plant index has an excellent selection of indigenous plants. Members have full access, so if you have not signed up yet click here to learn more.

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