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Ficus benjamina L. 1767
pronounced: FY-kuss ben-juh-MYE-nuh
(Moraceae — the fig family)
common name: Weeping Fig
Ficus is Latin for fig, and benjamina comes from Benjan, the Indian name for this plant. The tree is a native of south India and Australia. It is the official tree of Bangkok, and will reach up to 30 m tall in natural conditions, with gracefully drooping branchlets and glossy leaves. The leaves are very sensitive to small changes in light. When a tree is re-located, it reacts by dropping many of its leaves and replacing them with new leaves adapted to the changed light intensity.
Although there are a number of these trees on Magnetic Island, they are more a feature of Townsville than of the island. As a boy, the first examples I ever saw of topiary were the weeping figs outside the (old) Townsville Railway Station, in the shape of a flat-topped mushroom. The trees are still there, and until recently were maintained in the same shape, albeit much larger. For the last couple of years they have not been trimmed.
The CBD streets have many examples of weeping figs in pots, most of them trimmed into spherical shapes. The trees used for these pots, and indeed the ones at the Railway Station, are not precisely the same as the ones I have mentioned on the island, having a somewhat smaller leaf and smaller fruits. They may be cultivars of the same species – there is a cultivar ‘Too Little’ especially suited to bonsai – but I think the ones at the Station may possibly be Hill’s Weeping Fig, Ficus microcarpa ‘Hillii’. Some cultivars have different patterns of coloration on the leaves, ranging from light green to dark green, and various forms of white variegation.
Features of Ficus benjamina are the fine aerial roots, much finer than those of the banyan, and the small, paired orange to reddish globular fruits. Latex is present. The fruits are very popular with various fruit-doves, and also with the Torres Strait pigeons.
Although these are very attractive trees, they have a serious down-side, as the roots are exceedingly invasive. They will undermine streets and footpaths, and even destabilize the foundations of buildings if they are planted close enough. The Hill’s variety is even more invasive than the others, and I have seen it planted on Townsville footpaths in huge underground containers to try to contain the root growth. Trenchant pruning also helps to inhibit root growth.
The tree yields quita an attractive-looking white timber, which is very difficult to work, due to the waywardness of the grain and the difficulty in drying the wood.
When the tree is grown in pots, the roots often expand to crack the pots, and will grow out of the bottoms of the pots into the ground. When grown inside, these trees are a proven filter of indoor air toxins.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008-2012
Page last updated 4th December 2016