Figs are an excellent eatable. And while most of us call it a fruit, it’s not really a fruit! It is, in fact, a flower. Now that I’ve reeled you into one interesting aspect of the fig, I might as well tell you this: in nature; figs are typically pollinated by fig wasps.
In fact, some scientists posit that the fig would die out if the earth didn’t have fig wasps! But, surely there must be another way. How are figs pollinated without fig wasps? Let’s find out.
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What are figs, if not fruits? Are they really flowers?
Figs are not fruits but flowers. And figs are not alone in this endeavor to dupe people into thinking that they are fruits!
If you ever walk into your regular supermarket, you will find eatables like brinjals and bananas. Now, neither is a vegetable nor a fruit! In fact, both are different types of berries.
Similarly, even figs are actually flowers. What do I mean by that, though? Well, when you dissect a fig, you will notice clusters and clusters of tiny white-red seed-like parts. And these parts contribute to the crunchiness of the fruit.
Well, you’ll be surprised to know that these parts are actually delicate flowers and the outer portion of the fig is actually a bulbous stem for these flowers!
How are figs pollinated in nature?
Being flowers, figs have only one method of increasing their population. That method is pollination. The fig wasp is the only visitor that has successfully undertaken such a task. The fig wasp gives its life in service to pollinating the fig.
What is the pollination cycle of a fig?
Few people know that the pollination cycle of figs is a remarkable process. The pollination cycle of a fig is a process that occurs when the flowers inside the fruit are pollinated.
And we know that this is done by the fig wasp, which is the only insect that can pollinate a fig. The process begins when the female wasp enters a fig and emits a scent that attracts other fig wasps.
Once she has found a suitable fig, the female wasp will tunnel her way through a needle-sized opening at the base of the fruit. Inside, she will find pollen and deposit it on the stigma of the flower.
In fact, every time a female wasp enters a fig to lay eggs, she unknowingly commits suicide. Inside the chamber of ripe fig, the mother wasp lays eggs in as many minuscule flowers as possible before she perishes.
As the eggs hatch, the baby wasps will eat their way out of the fig and search for new figs to pollinate.
The male hatchlings emerge first and do not resemble wasps at all. Wingless and with worm-like bodies, their only mission is to fertilize the female larvae before they hatch.
After fertilizing the females, the males use their jaws to bite through the fig’s flesh, creating exit routes for their female siblings. Soon after, female wasps are born as pregnant queens, carrying with them the next generation of wasps.
But, how are figs pollinated without fig wasps?
But does this mean that all the figs that you eat are pollinated by fig wasps? There has to be a more viable alternative to growing these flowers and eating them!
Thankfully, there are some types of figs that don’t require pollination to ripen. Here are two ways to pollinate figs without fig wasps.
Spraying figs with plant hormones to biologically ensure that they ripen
It is possible to biologically trick plants into ripening figs without wasps by spraying them with plant hormones.
Most figs that you will end up buying are not pollinated with fig wasps. Rather, they are artificially pollinated by injecting or spraying plant hormones on them.
Artificial pollination by step cutting of edible fig plants
Interestingly, new cultivars and hybrids of edible figs have been created by artificial pollination with different pollen donors.
Pollination is completely dependent on stem cutting- that is, the practice of wounding a fig branch and then dusting it with pollen from another fig variety.
Once the fig ripens, the seeds are then artificially extracted and then pollinated in order to grow new fig plants! That said, even when figs are grown the old-fashioned way with wasps, the wasp is long gone by the time the fig crosses your lips.
There is a term for figs that are artificially pollinated – parthenocarpy. This essentially refers to the sterility of the fruit so grown. These figs can be pollinated asexually!
What is the nature of the relationship between figs and fig wasps?
Fig wasps are essential for fig reproduction. Without them, figs would not be able to reproduce. The relationship between figs and fig wasps is a symbiotic one, which means that both species benefit from the relationship.
Most wild varieties of figs cannot reproduce without the help of fig wasps, and fig wasps need access to fresh figs in order to lay their eggs. This relationship is obligate, meaning that it is necessary for both species involved.
The fig plant and the fig wasp have a codependent relationship that is so profound that neither organism can exist without the other.
The fig tree provides food and a place for the fig wasp to lay eggs, and the fig wasp helps pollinate the fig tree. Without one another, they would both die.
That is, if mankind is unable to artificially pollinate figs using plant hormones or stem cutting methods. Even so, there are some fig types that are, to date, only pollinated by fig wasps.
Can you eat figs as a vegan, or do you have to eat figs that are pollinated by fig wasps?
If you were living in the wild, most figs that grow in nature might require pollination by a fig wasp in order to produce fruit.
However, commercial varieties of figs you find at the supermarket are usually cultivated without pollination and grown from cuttings. This means that they don’t rely on the wasp for pollination and can be eaten by vegans.
In short, figs that are bred to be parthenocarpic satisfy the tenets of a vegan lifestyle. These figs reproduce asexually, and the pollinators are effectively digested for nourishment.
Therefore, you’re unlikely to find any little pollinators in your supermarket figs, but even if you were to eat a wild fig, the carnivorous enzyme released by figs as they ripen would digest the internalized wasps for nourishment.
Further, even wild figs won’t typically have remains of fig wasps after they have ripened. This is because figs produce a particular botanical chemical called ficin.
Ficin has the power to break down the wasp remains and their eggs into molecules. Therefore, they don’t really count as wasps anymore!
The only way figs can be pollinated without fig wasps is through man-made artificial means of pollination. And most of the figs that you find in your regular supermarket are pollinated asexually. Therefore, you don’t really have to stress about eating wasps every time you bite into a fig!