Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees

In a jam for a late holiday gift? Step away from that figgy pudding and consider…the fig. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees, by Mike Shanahan (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2016) is a short, fascinating read that delves into the history—natural and cultural—of Ficus and will leave you with a new appreciation of the genus and its place in the world.

Shanahan, a rain-forest ecologist, was motivated to write this book by three things: the importance of fig trees to tropical ecology, the influence of the genus on human culture, and his conclusion that we are destroying the first while forgetting the second. The kind of guy you’d like to sit down to coffee with, Shanahan is at ease with his subject and has clearly done his homework.

While he covers a many angles on his amble through the world of figs (which make for some of the best reading), this is a book with a message. The real reason for this book is to make recent research accessible to the masses, and the fantastic account of the “framework species approach” using Ficus species to jump-start forest regeneration in even the most degraded former forests, will have you running into the rabbit-hole of sources Shanahan provides and digging deeper. The implications, as well as the current research and methodology, are astounding—and reason enough to pick up this volume.

Along the way, Shanahan makes a couple of questionable assertions. He does admit to it being arguable that “no other group of plants holds as much ecological importance, evolutionary interest and cultural value,” but missed the boat when he says that figs became “the most varied group of plants on the planet.” A cursory check reveals at least 30 genera of flowering plants with more species than Ficus.

And…looking for flowers in a fig tree is a fruitless quest (pun intended). While Shanahan acknowledges this and expounds on the cultural references that stem from the fact, he misses the opportunity to enlighten readers that a fig is not a true fruit but a syconium…an inflorescence formed by an enlarged, fleshy stem with many flowers and their ovaries inside. Only when it’s been fertilized and contains seed will it conform to our standard definition of fruit.

Ironically, though he states that “every one of the 750 plus species of Ficus species is pollinated by one or more tiny wasps,” the great majority of figs we eat come from Ficus carica and its dozens of cultivars grown around the world—a species that has done away with the necessity of having its own pollinating wasp and is able to make fruit on its own. This miracle of parthenogenesis (“virgin creation”) is what made it possible for the production of figs to move from forest to farm, tropics to temperate climates, and toyour backyard.

And therein lies my biggest beef with Shanahan’s book. While I’m certain its because of his emphasis on the seeded Ficus as forest regeneration catalysts, there’s a missing chapter in this book and it’s the story of Ficus carica, one of the most important figs to humans. Far beyond the figs we use to adorn our gardens and homes, this one makes food. A good, healthy food. I would have loved for this tale to be told. The discovery of a fig that doesn’t need fertilization by a specific wasp to fruit, its cultivation early in human history, its subsequent movement around the world, and its widespread cultivation today, is a bio-cultural marvel. Perhaps it’s another book….

Stylistically Shanahan keeps the book chatty, informal and readable. This has obvious pluses, but means that certain pieces of information get glossed over and lose depth—and that a few breathless exclamations creep in. This may be the source of some of my quibbles. This is a man, however, clearly besotted by his subject and he deserves to be heard. What I got was great…but I wanted more.

If you, like the good citizens of Athens in the time of Theophrastus, are philosykos (lovers of figs) this book is a great introduction to an amazing genus of plants, known to many—yet largely, until now, unknown.

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