When you go looking for figs this season in your local grocery store, you'll likely find them in the fruit section of the produce aisle. But did you know that the fig you like to eat is actually a flower and not a fruit? The fig is a flower that blooms inwards. You may have noticed when you bite into one that there is a core of blossoms inside the center.
This is where the love story begins.
Because the fig is in fact a flower and not a fruit, it needs to be pollinated in order to reproduce. Since the blossoms are difficult to to get to, the fig requires a special type of insect to pollinate it.
Enter the fig wasp.
The fig and the fig wasp have an intimate relationship - their life cycles are literally intertwined. Granted, there are some species of fig that are artificially pollinated, but we're not interested in those for the purpose of this story.
What's more fascinating is the fact that figs and wasps have been growing old together for over 60 million years. For every species of fig there is a corresponding species of wasp. In return for pollinating the fig plant, the wasp receives a home and a final resting place. A mother wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, and once the eggs hatch and the wasps mature, the males and females mate. The males then chew a hole out of the fig they were residing in for the females to exit the fig flower. The males promptly die once their task is done, and then the females take flight, search for a new plant to lay their eggs in, and the life cycle starts again. Sadly, the fig requires complete monogamy, and has evolved so that its entrance is booby-trapped to destroy the wasp's wings once it enters the flower. Therefore, after laying her eggs, the mother wasp has no other choice but to die inside the fig. Thus, when you eat a fig, you might very well be eating a wasp mummy, too.
This intimate relationship between the fig and its wasp has allowed the fig to radiate throughout the natural world. Figs can grown in all different forms - trees, vines or shrubs. As vines, they can grow on other trees, eventually enveloping their host. Their seeds can grown in places where other plants and seeds would likely flounder: volcanic islands, cliff sides and roof tops. The Fig genus, Ficus, is one of the greatest variety in the tropics, and the fig plant can be found in both the wild and the greenhouse or garden.
Because of its variety and adaptability, the fig is very important in the diet of many animals. As the biologist Daniel Janzen put it in “How to Be a Fig,” an article from 1979, “Who eats figs? Everybody.” All animals from squirrels and birds to monkeys and humans. Many animals rely on figs because they can be found year-round due to their special pollination and life cycle with the wasp. They are not seasonal. In fact, when other fruits are sparse, the fig provides nutrients for animals in months during which other foods are not in season. Due to this, figs are classified as a keystone species. This means that, without them, a whole ecosystem would collapse. Therefore, figs play a central role in creating new growth in deforested landscapes.
Next time you bite into a fig, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the important role they play in the environment, and the intimate relationship they have with the fig wasp.
Story adapted from the New Yorker Magazine "Love the Fig" by Rajmani Sinclair