Common names: scrambling fig, Burtt Davy’s fig, veld fig (Engl.); veldvy, rankvy, veldwildevy (Afr.); umthombe, uluzi (isiZulu); uluzi, umdendekwana (isiXhosa)
SA Tree No: 49
Ficus burtt-davyi is typically a lax shrub occurring in coastal scrub or thicket, that becomes a robust creeper in inland forests and a small multi-stemmed ‘rock splitting’ shrub in the drier Karoo region.
Ficus burtt-davyi grows as a creeper, shrub or small tree, 0.5–5 m tall, depending on habitat where it grows. Multi-stemmed with smooth, silvery grey to grey bark; leaves are simple, alternate, glossy green, more or less oval in shape, with a recurved tip. It is distinguished by its faintly 3-veined leaf base from its closest species F. burkei and F. natalensis.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ficus is the Latin name for figs, and because of the various growth forms the species, as well as attractive figs, the trees are known to be beautiful and ecologically important. Ficus burtt-davyi is a typical example of this. This species was named after Joseph Burtt Davy (1870–1940), the founder of what is currently known as the National Herbarium in Pretoria. There are approximately 750 species worldwide, ± 500 of these are centred in Australasia, 110 in Africa and Madagascar, and 26 in southern Africa.
Species of Ficus are perhaps best known for their relationship with pollinating wasps (Hymenoptera, Agaonidae), which, with few exceptions (Michaloud et al. 1996), are species-specific (Wiebes 1979). The fig we eat is not a fruit but an inside-out flower stalk, containing many flowers (botanically known as synconia in plural form).
This ‘container’ has a small opening at one end and through this opening, a small female wasp attracted by a specific scent, enters and lays her eggs in special infertile flowers, while unintentionally pollinating the fertile flowers and gathering pollen in special sacs. She then leaves through the opening again and carries the pollen to another fig.
Fig species usually have their own species of pollinating wasp; Ficus burtt-davyi for instance, is pollinated by a tiny wasp of about 1.5 mm long called Elisabethiella baijnathi.
Its figs are eaten by numerous birds many of which are capable of dispersing the seeds.
Human interaction with nature has resulted in the development of unique sets of cultural knowledge and practices that are dependent on elements of biodiversity for their continued existence and expression (Persic & Martin 2008). There is a Xhosa proverb which says ‘the beauty of the wild fig is attractive to look at but is often rotten inside’ which simply means, beauty is but skin deep. This refers to the beauty of the figs and the rotten part is actually from the larvae of the pollinating wasp.
Apart from using biodiversity for idioms and expressions, the amaXhosa people have historical uses of the fibres from the roots and bark of Ficus burtt-davyi to make several types of charm necklaces, called intambo. When the uluzi (the twine made from the bark) is to be used, the dry material is soaked in water to soften it and teased apart into thin strands about 30 cm long. These strands are individually twisted between the palm of the hand and bare thigh. Two of these are twisted together, and in some cases, interlaced with tufts of goat or cow tail hairs at intervals, to make a charm necklace called intambo, which means a thong or rope. Often white beads are added at intervals. A conventional button is attached to one end and a corresponding loop is made at the other end (M.L Cocks & A.P. Dold unpublished)