Hippopotamus fig or Swamp fig
From a bird-attracting perspective this wild fig species ranks amongst the very best of the garden plants. Having seen the many different bird species visiting the tree in my garden when it is laden with fruit from early spring and through the summer months leads me to conclude that this is a ‘must’ for all bird gardens. A little more detail about the tree itself. It was formerly known by the name FICUS hippopotami because the trees were found growing naturally in swamp forests from the north coast of KwaZulu- Natal northwards into Mozambique and up into central and west Africa – all areas where hippos were plentiful. Described as a large shrub or tree, garden specimens certainly grow into large, wide-spreading evergreen trees 12 to 25 metres tall. So wide in fact that this is the only South African fig species to grow ‘banyan’ or stilt roots. These appendages grow down from the horizontal branches, eventually reaching the ground where they take root, and develop into stout supports to hold up the heavily eighted branches. The bark of the main trunks and branches is smooth and grey in colour. Leaves are large, up to 230mm long and about half as wide, heart shaped and bright green with prominent veins. The bud sheaths that enclose new leaves before they emerge are an attractive rosy pink shade. Figs are produced in the leaf axils of new growth from spring to late summer in intermittent flushes. They can attain a diameter of 20mm when mature and turn bright red when they are ripe.
All fruit-eating birds, monkeys and fruit bats feast on the ripe figs. The milky sap has been used as birdlime and the bark can be plaited into strong rope. Propagate plants from seed or from large truncheons (cut branches) planted directly into the ground. Hippopotamus figs are unlikely to withstand cold, frosty climatic conditions, as their natural distribution range is distinctly subtropical. In conclusion I must emphasise that this tree only has a place in the largest of gardens. Like all Ficus species the roots run riot and travel vast distances, far further than most trees. They also grow rather rapidly, creating root problems sooner than most trees. They are pretty much surface root systems and can be seen clearly in lawns and flowerbeds, metres away from the drip line of the tree. This is a clear indication that a swamp fig in your garden needs to be strategically positioned with a great deal of forethought and responsibility. The far away boundary fence close to your next-door neighbour’s driveway or swimming pool would not be deemed to be a responsible place to plant one.