Fig trees were here when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Ficus is a genus of some 850 species that exist world wide. Scientists have been studying the reverence for fig trees since the 1800s. They’ve found that myths from all around the world have helped preserve these trees.
The tree grows in the forests of East Africa which is a highly competitive space where every species must use what it has, to get what it needs. The environment has four layers. The forest floor is very dark and makes up the bottom layer. This is home to rodents and insectivores, fungi and bacteria. Leaves, fruit and branches fall here and decompose quickly. A leaf that would otherwise take a year to rot will disappear in six weeks.
The next layer is the under-story. Shrubs and stunted trees with broad leaves grow here as taller trees prevent much light from reaching them. Huge leaves help absorb as much light as possible. Plants in this layer grow no taller than 15 feet. Most insects, jaguars and leopards are found in this layer.
The canopy is the over-story, comprising the tops of all trees covering the forest. Trees in this layer typically grow as high as 100 feet and absorb lots of light. Many animals, snakes, tree frogs and toucans live in this abundant layer.
Finally, emergents make up the top layer, wide leafed and tall at 250 feet, they are evergreen hardwoods and home to monkeys, eagles, bats and butterflies.
The strangler fig or Mugumo has evolved to compete for forest resources by beginning its life as an epiphyte high in the canopy. Epiphytes are plants that grow on top of other plants, though they do not harm their host. Instead, they get their nutrients from the air, water and sunlight. The strangler sprouts from a small seed that gets to the canopy in the faeces of a monkey, bird or bat.
At this stage, the strangler grows upward, developing leaves to absorb sunlight. But unlike a regular epiphyte, the strangler fig also drops its aerial roots, enveloping the host tree, driving its gnarled roots into the ground.
The strangler fig helps itself to the sunlight and other nutrients the host tree needs, strangling it in the process. Ultimately, the host tree dies, leaving the strangler with a hollow trunk.
But it gives year round fruit, stabilises the soil from erosion and its roots form channels deep and wide, bringing ground water up to the surface for other life to exist. Birds, bats, reptiles and small mammals also live in its many nooks and crannies.
Its pollination is yet another dramatic story. Each species of Ficus has a corresponding specialised species of wasp that fertilises it. A female wasp forces her way into an immature fruit through a natural opening. She loses her wings and antenae in the process, lays her eggs and dies. The fruit digests her. The male wasps hatch first, impregnate the females before they are born, tunnel their way out of the fruit and die. The females hatch and using the tunnel escape, carrying with them pollen. They mature and enter another fig to continue the life cycle.
In some figs, a wasp that actively collects pollen in its sacs is forced to keep up its side of the bargain. A recent study by Cornell University found that the tree dumped the fruit, by dropping it if the female wasp did not bring pollen in its sacs to pollinate the fruit. That is, if the fig did not get pollinated the wasp did not get protection for her eggs inside the ripening fruit.
Once the wasps have left the fig, the seeds ripen and the fruit matures. The fruits’ colour and scent attracts birds, bats and monkeys, who eat the figs and spread the seeds in their droppings.
Mike Shanahan in his first book, ‘Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future’ found fig trees everywhere at the centre of mythology and numerous traditional stories.
Frequently the trees were sacred, considered the home of the gods or even deities as themselves. There were many parallels among cultures. For the Kikuyu, god created the first man and woman under a giant ‘mugumo’ tree. A story from Indonesia describes how two gods fashioned the first couple from a fig tree. In Christianity, the forbidden fruit Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was, in the original Bible story, a fig. A Banyan tree, which is a fig, in Andhra Pradesh, India, now forms a leaf-covered scaffold of roots-turnedtree trunks that spans two hectares. In many cultures in Africa, it is still taboo to cut down a fig tree. When President Barack Obama visited India in 2015, it was a fig he planted, as a sign of friendship between the US and India.
A social media site on Kalenjin culture, claimed that in many communities in African the Mugumo is revered and never played with. Mugumo in Kikuyu is Mogoiywet in Kalenjin, Mogoi meaning never and iwit meaning play with. Any time a a fig tree falls in Central Kenya, there is uncertainty and gloom among the Agikuyu community. They believe that there is looming disaster, death of a prominent person, severe drought and pestilences. In Kalenjin a Mogoiyweet fig tree falling or being pruned is unimaginable. If by mistake someone cuts it down, elders rush to the tree and pour warm milk chanting in union “Aiyo Kugo!” we are sorry our departed ancestors”.
The Kikuyus have a way of appeasing their ancestors and so have no worries as the wise elders of their community will provide direction.
The Maasai offer their libation on any fig tree in their locality and especially during Olng’esher, Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage), Eokoto e-kule (milk-drinking ceremony) and Enkang oo-nkiri (meat-eating ceremony).
There are four known fig trees which are sacred in Kalenjinland and for many years elders used them to predict events. They are in Ang’ata Barrikoi,Trans-Mara, Toroso Primary school in Mt Elgon, Maridadi Farm in Endebes,Trans-Nzoia and one in Lorien,Laikipia. In decades past, elders would say that when one branch of the fig tree in Toroso touches down, a severe war would break out in Mt Elgon. And it did.