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The Fig Tree As A Religious Symbol

Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors, as well.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve By Tizian

Adam and Eve By Tizian

The Fig Tree and the Apple Tree

Although the fig tree and the apple tree are both mentioned in the bible, the fig tree gets far more press. All total, the fig tree is referred to over fifty times, while the lowly apple tree gets just three references. Now take away the tree part and the apple is completely left out, while the durable fig still gets numerous mentions. For a botanist or plant scientist, this difference is ripe for scientific inquiry and discussion, for both fruits are important food staples that were first cultivated thousands of years ago.

Figs and Apples

Figs and apples both have their origins in the Middle East, but the fig seems to be the older cultivated agricultural product. Though both have been around for a many years, the fig is believed to have been first cultivated by Middle Eastern man at least 10,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest cultivated foods on the planet.

On the other hand, the apple shows a more recent date of cultivation (about 8,000 years ago) with the Tien Shan mountains of Eastern Turkey, being the most likely candidate for the original home of this important fruit tree. From here the apple was traded south to places along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Some scholars believe that the story of Adam and Eve took place before the cultivation of the apple, thus making the fig as the forbidden fruit mentioned in the popular bible story.

The Common Fig

Botanical illustration for the common fig, Ficus carica

Botanical illustration for the common fig, Ficus carica

The Fig Tree

The fig tree is actually part of the mulberry family, whose scientific family name is Moraceae. The mulberry family is known for developing multiple fruits, a situation where many flowers grow together to form one large fruit. Though not in the mulberry family, the pineapple is a splendid example of a multiple fruit. Beside figs and mulberries, this plant family includes jackfruits, breadfruits and the Osage orange, all of which bear very large fruits.The fig tree is of the genus Ficus, which contains around 700 species worldwide.

The Tree of the Common Fig

An old fig tree, Ficus carica

An old fig tree, Ficus carica

The Fig of the Holy Land

The fig of the Holy Land is known to scientists as Ficus carica. It is smaller than fig trees from other parts of the world, yet the plant is still cultivated all across the globe, mainly for its tasty fruit. In biblical times, the fig provided firewood as well as food. In ancient times, figs were dried and placed on long lengths of string, so they could be used as nourishment on trips across the desert. Although the fruit of the fig appears in many Christian parables, the tree itself was not considered sacred.

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One interesting scientific note is that this fig species produces trees, which are either male or female. Among these unusual desert plants, the agent of fertilization is a tiny wasp that is hatched within the male flower. After the insect emerges, it flies to a female tree, where it buries it way into the interior of the female pod and fertilizes one of the female flowers to produce the popular fig, which is still widely consumed today. On the other hand, the fruit of unfertilized female pods is small and tough and usually just fed to livestock.

A Sacred Fig In India

In India the sacred fig is known as the Peepal tree

In India the sacred fig is known as the Peepal tree

The Buddha Tree

Besides playing an important role in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fig tree is also a major religious symbol for Buddhists. Also known as the Bodhi tree or Bo tree, this plant once provided shelter for the Buddha, while he rested and obtained enlightenment. Even today, Hindi monks still seek the shade of this fig for religious meditations.

In the Buddhist tradition, a specific plant must be traced to the original tree in order to be considered a sacred tree. Since, the enlightenment ( Bodhi) of the original Buddha (Gautama Buddha) occurred over 2,000 years ago, the original Bo tree, no longer exists. Therefore many offshoots are grown, all tracing there ancestry to original tree in India.

Scientifically known as Ficus religiosa, this sacred fig is native to Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. As a food staple, the fruit is barely edible, yet it is still prized for its medicinal qualities.The tree itself can reach a height of 100 feet, while developing a thick twisted trunk, which in some cases, can obtain a diameter of ten feet or more.

A Fig Tree That Can Cover Acres

This banyan tree was found near Morjim, Goa, India.

This banyan tree was found near Morjim, Goa, India.

The Banyan Fig

Just south of where the sacred Bodhi tree can be found, there grows another large fig tree (Ficus bengalensis), also called the Banyan fig. These trees are known for there extensive aerial roots, which often extend high above ground level, acting as props to support the aerial branches. These networks of roots and branches can cover several acres. In fact Alexander the Great, reportedly camped underneath one such tree with an army of 7,000 men. Not surprisingly, these trees are considered valuable because of the immense shelter that they can provide.

Figs That Destroy

These large fig trees are consuming the ruins of Ta Prohm in Cambodia

These large fig trees are consuming the ruins of Ta Prohm in Cambodia

The Strangler Figs of Central America

Throughout the tropical and sub-tropical rain forests of the world, there exist hundreds of species of Ficus fig trees. These immense vine-like plants play an important ecological role in providing food and shelter for many different types of animals. These varieties of the fig have aerial roots, much like the Banyan fig of Southern Asia. This hardy vegetation can grow almost anywhere, including rock cliffs and ancient ruins, where they act as a catalyst in converting rock and stone to soil. A strangler fig can also take root in the crown of other rain forest trees, sending down its aerial roots until it chokes and kills the host tree.

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