The miracle that is the elephant ear fig

“There is a wasp which cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilized without the help of a wasp. When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she hatched within a different fig flower. These two organisms – the wasp and the fig – have enjoyed this arrangement for almost ninety million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages. Theirs is like any epic love story, in that part of the appeal lies in its impossibility.”

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

While we were being shown around the Orange County Coorg Estate on our recent trip to India our guide pointed to a tree with the most enormous leaves, and bunches of ripening figs growing directly off the trunk.

It didn’t surprise us to learn that the tree was called the Elephant Ear Tree (Ficus auriculata). But what did surprise us was the miracle of its propagation. I’d always thought that wasps (like sharks) contributed nothing to the world’s food chains, but the Elephant Ear Fig depends on wasps (specifically the Ceratosolen) completely in order to pollinate.

about the elephant ear fig
The ripe fruit opened up. Image courtesy of Ahmad Fuad Morad.

The fruit had a pomegranate-looking bottom housing the entrance for wasps. “Female wasps” our guide explained, “enter and pollinate the flowers that are inside the fruit. While they are there they lay their eggs. The eggs hatch and bore holes to get out. Then, and only then, the fruit ripens. If the fruit doesn’t get pollinated by this means it simply rots.”

But this is a food blog and I am becoming distracted by the amazing botany.

Elephant ear figs aren’t much to write home about from a flavour point of view – other figs are juicier and tastier.

But they can be eaten. In India they are made into jam or juice, or added to curries. The enormous leaves are also, like banana leaves (see Mysore market), used as plates.

about the elephant ear fig
You can see the big elephant ear leaves on the tree on the right.
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