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Plant identification guides:
Bush tucker food forest

Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.

 

As with all medicinal applications of Australian bush foods, please do your due diligence and consult with First Nations or other Australian herbal specialists before utilising as a remedy for any condition.

 

Some parts of the plant may not be edible or some may need preparation before they are safe to eat or use in any way. We do our best to describe their traditional & modern uses. It is the reader’s responsibility to ensure they are fit for their intended use.

 

We can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Sandpaper fig

Scientific name:

Other Names:

Ficus opposita

Sweet sandpaper fig, sweet fig, figwood, watery fig

Family:

Moraceae

Sandpaper fig

Basic info:

Ficus opposita is one of several fig species commonly known as sandpaper figs.[1] It is native to the Northern Territory and Queensland in Australia and is found in Beach scrub, gallery (riverine or riparian) forest, littoral rainforest, open forest, rainforest and woodland.


The sandpaper fig grows as either a shrub or a small tree up to about 8 m high with a rounded, fairly dense crown. It may be bushy or straggly, depending on the growing conditions. It has harsh rough leaves with the feel of sandpaper: hence its common name.


The scientific name derives from the fact that the leaves are often opposite on the twig, a very unusual arrangement for a fig, but the leaves can also be alternate on the same individual.


It is semi-deciduous – in drier times it will shed leaves extensively, but springs back with vigorous growth after rain when the small brown figs will swell to several times their size and become fleshy and shiny black.


The plant is dioecious i.e. there are separate male and female plants. Female trees produce fruit with seeds whilst the figs on male trees are used as breeding sites for pollinating fig wasps.

Tiny flowers are contained inside the cavity of the fig. A small opening provides access, usually to one specific species of wasp, in which the female lays her eggs. Newly hatched wasps typically pollinate the figs as they travel to different fruit upon dispersal. [2]


Because the cavity of the fig contains the flower, the term "fruit" is actually incorrect. Botanists prefer to call them "syconium" or "fleshy receptacle". A true fruit should derive from the ovary of a pollinated flower, rather than containing the flower itself.


The figs are about 1 cm in diameter or a little larger, borne singly or in pairs in the leaf axils. As they ripen, their colour changes from green to yellow, then to reddish brown, and finally to black.

The ‘fruit’ is edible and palatable once it has turned black.[3] The skin of the fruit is so thin that it is often broken just by touching it. At full maturity the fruit often drips a clear, sweet nectar, and at this stage it is one of the nicest-eating of bush tuckers, and surprisingly rich in Vitamin C, energy and most minerals, with moderate levels of other nutritional elements.


Fruits ripen from January to June and may be plucked straight off the tree or collected off the ground.


he fruits are also eaten by many birds. The leaves are a larval food for species of moths and butterflies.


Despite the harshness of the leaves this plant is one of the host plants for a small butterfly Philiris innotata. The larvae feed on the leaves and leave ‘tracks’ on the lower surface of the leaf, they are often difficult to see when resting because they are pale green. The lower side of the wings of the adult butterfly are white below but males are purple above and the females are blue.


Caution! The white sap (latex) of all figs is a major topical irritant due to the high levels of toxic alkaloids and should never be taken internally. When picking figs, avoid unnecessarily breaking leaves and branches, and avoid getting latex from the fruit stem on your skin or in your eyes. New season growth seems to have lower toxicity latex, hence leaf use by some cultures for some species of fig.



NOTES:

[1] The most common other Sandpaper figs are Ficus coronata (Creek Sandpaper Fig), and Ficus fraseri (Shiny Sandpaper Fig). They can be difficult to tell apart. For a guide, see here.

[2] “Due to the symbiotic relationship almost all figs have with certain species of tiny pollinator and non-pollinator wasps, it is possible to find dead wasps and/or their grubs inside both ripe and unripe fruit. A key sign of wasp activity will be a small hole (or several), about the width of a full stop, bored straight through the skin of the fig fruit, from the inside, by the female as she emerges in search of another fig to crawl into and lay her eggs. Male wasps spend their entire life cycle inside the fig and never see the light of day. If the prospect of eating small wasps or grubs disturbs you, halve all fruit and inspect prior to consumption. Note that natural enzymes in the fig fruit will completely dissolve the wasps who have crawled into fruit, laid their eggs and then died. The wasps and their grubs are perfectly safe to eat (inadvertently!) and are not known to harbour any diseases harmful to humans.” (Reference).

[3] Some say: “The immature fruits can also be eaten raw or cooked, and they have a sweet, slightly tart flavour. Mature fruits are edible but are not as palatable as the immature fruits.” - https://bushtobowl.com/products/sandpaper-fig-ficus-coronata

Uses and Interesting Information:

Many groups of indigenous people from mainland Australia ate these figs. They can be eaten raw when ripe and have a sweet taste. They can also be beaten to make a paste and then mixed with honey and water. Many of the First Nations of Australia would grind dried fig fruits, seeds, wasps and all, into a paste for long-term food storage. The paste can be eaten as is, or mixed with other seed or grain flours to make a dense johnny-cake-like bread.


As well as eating the fruits, Aboriginal people found many other uses for the tree. They used the leaves as sandpaper for smoothing and polishing wooden objects such as spears, woomeras and boomerangs. Just as today in the hardware shop we will specify the grade of sandpaper we wish to buy, in various degrees of fineness and coarseness, so it is also possible to shop around with the Sandpaper Fig – various neighbouring plants will have different degrees of coarseness in their leaves.The inner bark was also used to make string.


In bush medicine, the tree also provided a cure for ringworm and fungal infections such as tinea: the affected skin would be abraded with a leaf, and the milky latex applied to the affected area.


A further use is made by boiling and straining the inner bark and roots of the tree to treat diarrhoea - the liquid is cooled, strained and taken frequently in small doses; this medicine can also be used as an eyewash. When the leaves are soaked in water, a liquid is produced which can be applied to soothe itchy skin conditions.


The sandpaper fig leaves were also used in conjunction with stinking passion flower to relieve insect bites. The rough texture of the leaves would be used to rub the skin until it bled, and then the passion flower would be applied.


Dry straight stems of the tree were used as fire sticks; this is one of the few plants in the north suitable for this purpose.


The timber is difficult to season, especially when left in log form, when it suffers from extreme shrinkage. Sawn boards seem to do better, if given enough air. Items turned while the timber is green also seem to survive fairly well. The grain pattern and colour enable some very effective pieces to be produced. The timber is quite light, sands very easily, and needs to be sealed before finishing.


Hence, you could call it a ‘supermarket tree’. It attracts birds, can be used for shade, food, medicine, tools, fire and string to make nets and traps.

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