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Most exciting of all to me though was the young Moreton Bay fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) growing vigorously on land behind the demolished St James Presbyterian Church in King Edward St. You can just see this tree from the footpath of King Edward St near its intersection with Bay View Rd. Fortunately, it’s easy to get a much closer look by peering over a fence in Navy Park next door.
The tree is still only 5m or so tall — a minnow compared to its siblings in eastern Australia and the North Island. But where else can you see a Moreton Bay fig tree apparently thriving outside in Otago? It seems likely that the taller evergreen trees nearby have sheltered it from the worst of winter’s frosts and icy southerlies.
Edible figs from the related common fig tree (Ficus carica) have been grown in the Middle East for over 9000 thousand years. Archaeological evidence suggests that people there deliberately cultivated the trees for fruit even before they started growing savoury staples such as wheat, barley and legumes. Deciduous common fig trees can be seen here and there in Otago gardens, though I know from experience that in Dunedin you need a really good summer to get fruit that’s worth eating.
It’s a shame that none of over 800 different trees in the fig genus Ficus are native to New Zealand, and that very few of them cope with the kinds of frosts that make our southern winters so crisp. Despite that, a lot of us love to indulge in little tropical fantasies at home and in our offices with potted India rubber plants (Ficus elastica), fiddle-leaf fig plants (Ficus lyrata) or weeping fig plants (Ficus benjamina). The Dunedin Botanic Garden has a small Port Jackson fig or Rusty fig (Ficus rubiginosa) from eastern Australia in its Winter Garden Glasshouse, but I haven’t come across any evergreen fig trees growing out in the open there.
Moreton Bay fig trees can reach 60m in height and nearly 50m wide, with buttressed roots like wooden curtains winding around their bases and bunches of aerial roots hanging from their branches. Their large, dark green, leathery leaves are like floppy versions of the India rubber plant leaves that we know so well. The little round figs on old trees are edible if you’re desperate, but they’re a distant runner-up to the common fig in the taste stakes.
Anyone who’s been to Brisbane or Sydney will have seen the huge, sprawling Moreton Bay fig trees in parks and public spaces. They grow naturally on fertile soils from near Bundaberg in Queensland to just south of Wollongong in New South Wales. Although they’re not common in New Zealand, I’ve seen beautiful specimens in Russell and Napier.
Coincidence is a wonderful thing.
Just across Oxford St from the Moreton Bay fig tree and Navy Park, there’s a forlorn little India rubber plant in a pot by the south-facing wall of a local business.
It’s clinging on to life, but it looks rather miserable in the chilly shade of a Dunedin winter.
No doubt a lot of India rubber plants and other potted fig plants end up outside like this one when they’re past their best. Have any survived for any length of time in a frost-free spot in someone’s garden? It would be interesting to know.