The short definition of ficus is a genus of 800-plus plants that includes vines, shrubs and trees, largely natives of the tropical world. The longer definition, dealing with the form and habits of varied, individual species, is more complicated and difficult to describe in summary; the genus ranges from the climbing vines to the spectacular banyan tree. The ficus genus is sometimes called the fig--the same name used to describe the fruit produced by one of its varieties.
Ficus and Wasps
The tree that yields the edible fig (ficus carica) produces a diminutive, a knob-like structure called the synconium that is like an inside-out flower. A hole in the synconium leads to tiny flowers lining the inside. These attract wasps that lay their eggs inside and bring necessary pollen with them. Other species of ficus also produce synconiums and have a symbiotic relationship with the wasp.
Distinctive Sap and Leaves
All species of ficus ooze a sticky, rubbery sap that is yellowish to white in color. Ficus elastica, commonly called the rubber plant, is one of the most popular indoor plants; its thick, dark, glossy leaves look like they might be made of rubber. Ficus foliage--varying from membranous to leathery, with distinctive, varied veins--is often used to identify individual species.
Some species of ficus are climbing vines. Ficus pumila clings closely to walls in a dense, dark mat. It is also used for creating topiaries at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Topiaries are clipped, sculptured plants.
The ficus genus includes some of the tallest tropical trees. Some are epiphytes--that is, they have no roots and grow on other plants, gathering their nutrients from the air, eventually overwhelming their original host. The spreading banyan tree is an epiphyte.
A banyan in the botanic gardens in Calcutta is 42 feet around the trunk with 232 additional trunks 8 to 10 feet in circumference forming a canopy covering a circumference of 850 feet. The canopy of the banyan under which Alexander the Great is alleged to have camped along with 7,000 men now has a circumference of 2,000 feet from 3,000 trunks.
The Bodhi (ficus religiosa) is a sacred tree under which the Siddhartha Gautama sat when he achieved Bodhi (enlightenment) to become the Buddha (the awakened).