The desert fig (scientific name Ficus platypoda) is a plant related to the common fig. It is also known as the rock fig and can only be found in barren areas in the center and north of Australia. It is a lithophyte, or a plant that grows on rocks, and inhabits stony areas and cliffs. Desert fig can reach 10 meters in high.
The desert fig is a small but very adaptable and resilient tree, with spreading branches. In its youth, it grows between rocks or even as a parasite on other trees.
When it starts as an epiphyte, it spawns a number of aerial roots. When these reach the ground they transform into normal roots and become a lot stronger. The desert fig is very vigorous, once the ground roots are well established it will grow very fast and outpace its host tree. Eventually, the aerial roots of the desert fig will completely encircle the trunk of the host tree, locking it in some kind of cage that prevents it from growing. The branches and foliage of the desert fig will also shade the one of the host. After a while, the original tree dies while the desert fig uses it as a base to develop further, without having to compete for resources. The fruits can he gathered from the wild and used as food or for their high content of fibres.
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The desert fig is an endemic species that has never spread outside of its original habitat. This is what endemic means, a life form that is confined to a specific area, region or climate. Endemic plants are only found in one area and can never grow elsewhere, due to various factors. This makes them rare and very prized if they happen to be used as food or in medicine. Ficus platypoda is endemic to central and northern Australia.
The desert fig is even rarer because it's a lithophyte, the type of plants growing on stones. These are highly specialized species that are able to survive in very harsh conditions. Other examples of lithophytes are liverworts, algae, some species of orchid and ferns. They live from the rain water that flows down the rocks and use their own dead parts and remains of other plants for nutrients. It's impressive that the desert fig is able to grow in such conditions into a sizeable bush with a height of up to 10 m.
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The plant is most commonly found hanging on rocky outcrops and is covered with distinctive fine hairs. The hairs on the branches actually have an important role, they preserve some of the water and allow the plant to stay moist in a very hot environment. Leaves are alternate and oval in shape, they have a length between 5 and 16 cm and a width of 3 to 13 cm. The underside of the leaves is also covered with fine hair. The figs are oval shaped and can be very attractive because of their various striking colors, that can range from pink to orange or even red.
Like some other fruits, desert figs are rich in fibers, which help regular bowel movements and avoid constipation. Fibers make the stool bulkier, preventing diarrhea and other intestinal problems. At the same time, the food spends more time in the digestive tract, allowing our body to extract all the nutrients from it.
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Vegetal fibers are also good for weight loss and help tackle obesity but have to be used with care. They have a high content of calories and when eaten in combination with milk they can actually increase a person's weight. Desert figs are a rich source of fibers, no more than a few fruits provide the entire recommended daily amount and there is no need to eat more.
The main type of soluble fiber found in figs is pectin. Fiber acts like a detoxifier as it travels through the digestive system, since it removes any excess cholesterol on the way and transforms it into waste, which is excreted from the system. All soluble fibers, such as the pectin in figs, have this effect. However, since the amount of fiber is unusually high, consumption of desert figs can be laxative. A daily diet rich in fiber can boost overall health but also prevents many specific diseases. In particular, it can greatly decrease the risk of colon or abdominal cancer.
Desert figs are best eaten raw and are delicious when picked up straight from the wild. However, the timing must be perfect since many birds and animals feed on these fruits and will quickly eat all of them as they become ripe. As an alternative for longer storage, figs can be dried in the sun and consumed later. They can be processed into jam, which is a local Australian delicacy. They are also an ingredient in many recipes of cakes and ice creams.
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Desert figs have a very particular method of pollination, which is one of the reasons that have restricted their natural range. Every tree can only be fertilized by a unique variety of wasp. The wasps and the trees have a mutual relationship, since the insect also depends on the fig for its reproduction. Desert fig flowers are of three different types, a male one and two female varieties, of which one is long and the other is short and known as the gall flower. The fruit houses all of these three types.
The female wasps deposit their eggs only in the gall flower but pollinate the long female flowers in the process. From these eggs, the male fig wasps are born. They don't have wings and their role is to reproduce with the females as they come out of the eggs, then to dig an exit tunnel so the female insects can fly away. As they leave, the female wasps are covered in the pollen of the male flowers, which will fertilize the long female flowers when the insects find another tree where to deposit their eggs. This very complex system can only work if the trees bloom at different times of the year. As a result, a minimum number of trees is needed in order to cover all seasons with flowering figs of both types. If there are not enough trees in one area, the wasps die and the figs are not pollinated any longer.
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Like most fruits, desert figs are rich in a mix of fibers, minerals and vitamins. The most important nutrients found in figs are the vitamin A, vitamin B1 and vitamin B2, as well as minerals like manganese, sodium, potassium, calcium, iron and phosphorus.
The tree is known for the very big production of fruits. The crop of figs is named the breba crop because the new fruits often emerge from the mature wood from last year's harvest, instead of the new shoots. These breba figs become ripe during the middle of summer, unlike the normal figs which mature later, at the start of autumn.
The desert fig is a wild tree that exhibits important local varieties. Some fruits can be quite small but others reach an impressive size. Usually, the figs that are green to yellow in color have the largest size and are extremely sweet, with the central pulp resembling the one of a strawberry. The best fruits come from trees that grow at high elevations with cool weather. The most delicious figs also require cooler summers, without periods of extreme heat.