When the Indonesian island volcano Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the waves it sent forth crashed into Bantam, some 50 kilometers away in western Java, and flattened forest for a distance of more than 300 meters inland. All that remained standing, said French scientists who visited a year later, were tall fig trees, their bare branches reaching skyward.
Back on Krakatoa there was no trace of life. Much of the island had vaporized, and what was left was buried under a 60-meter deep blanket of ash. Yet before long, several species of fig trees grew there too. They had arrived as seeds defecated by wandering birds and bats. They soon produced figs that drew in more flying animals, which in time carried the seeds of dozens of other tree species. And so, from black lava, a forest grew anew.
The physical strength, resilience and animal magnetism of fig trees are powers we can tap as we grapple with the Earth’s fast-changing climate. As my new book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers* shows, humanity has long benefited from these trees as sources of materials and medicines, food, shade and security. As the world warms, we may need them more than ever.
That’s certainly true in the Indian state of Meghalaya, the most rain-soaked inhabited place on Earth. The Khasi and Jaintia people who live in the forested hills there train the aerial roots of Ficus elastica fig trees into living nets that prevent landslides and living bridges that save lives when monsoon rains turn streams into raging torrents.
Some of these bridges are thought to be centuries old. By contrast, steel suspension bridges last just a few decades. Bangalore-based architect Sanjeev Shankar says fusing fig roots with steel bridges could create stronger, longer-lasting hybrid structures. He also thinks people in other countries could use the living roots of their own local Ficus species to create structures that build resilience to extreme weather.
But fig trees aren’t only valuable in wet places like Meghalaya. They are also helping people adapt to the growing threat of drought. Farmers in Ethiopia, for instance, are embracing a fig species called Ficus thonningii. These trees need no irrigation, yet their leaves provide vital moist fodder for livestock. They enrich the soil with leaves that fall and decay, and they improve the growth of crops planted in their shade instead of the blazing sun.
Research by Mulubrhan Balehegn and colleagues at Mekelle University shows that planting this species instead of the usual fodder crops can boost production by 500 percent, while reducing inputs of water by 95 percent. Goats that eat the fig tree’s leaves produce more and better quality meat than those given only commercial feed.
Over the past decade, Balehegn and his colleagues have encouraged 20,000 households to plant this tree. They hope farmers will follow suit in the 33 other African countries where Ficus thonningii grows, and urge people to take similar approaches with fig trees in arid areas of India and China.
Crucially, planting fig trees doesn’t just improve livelihoods and help people adapt to the changing climate. By storing carbon, the trees can also play a part in slowing the rate of warming. All trees store carbon as they grow, but—as on Krakatoa—fig trees also encourage the growth of other tree species because their figs attract a diverse range of seed dispersers. In Costa Rica, Thailand and South Africa, researchers are harnessing this power by planting fig trees to accelerate reforestation on logged and mine-scarred land.
Elsewhere, people have traditionally used the presence of Ficus species to divine water, helping them decide where to plant crops or dig wells. Others have planted, or left standing, large fig trees as natural umbrellas against the heat, or have stored dried figs to turn to in times of drought and famine.
In fact, fig trees were among the first plants people domesticated. They have been helping people survive in hot and arid lands for thousands of years. As the world warms, the edible fig (Ficus carica), now grown in at least 70 countries, will grow in importance.
Rising temperatures also pose challenges to fig trees and the tiny wasps they depend on to pollinate their flowers. But this relationship between the plants and their pollinators has endured for 80 million years longer than humans have walked the Earth. The fig trees survived the extinction event that saw off the giant dinosaurs, and lived through periods warmer than what we experience today.
By contrast we are new here. Our future is made insecure by the slow pace at which we are removing carbon from the atmosphere, and our limited capacity to adapt to the resulting climatic change. The good news is that fig trees can help us to do both.
*UK title: Ladders to Heaven