The Cosmos in a Tree

There is a cosmos in every tree,
Galaxies blossoming in empty space,
Worlds sprouting like leaves. A tree once told me:
If your place is among the stars, boundless and free,
By my roots and ‘neath my shade, I promise thee –
In this age or the next –
Is where you will find peace.”

The fellowship

A conflicted love story of a little wasp is all it took. Of the countless spore-like seeds, one went down a bird’s crop, and came out the other end only to be adopted by a half-a-century-old Peepul tree. Two Bargad leaves sprang to life from one of the many crevices of the Peepul, which stands to the north of a busy police thana. To the west of this new companionship lies a large water tank with a small stone-temple built right under its shade. The land, owned by one malguzar, was primarily a forest slowly being turned to farmlands. After his demise, it would be named Kamta Mal – the village of Kamta Prasad the Malguzar, and a small hamlet where this tree and her companion live would be Kamta Chak. It is said these trees were witness to executions of criminals. That from the tank once drank tigers. That the Peepul is older than Kamta Chak.

This was a century ago. Except for the tank that is still in use to wash clothes and bathe buffaloes, the thana is in shambles, the temple glows bright with plastered chuna, the roads are all concretized, and the forest has receded a few hundred yards from the two companions. The glory of the Peepul, with its giant arms raised up in the sky, embraced by the Bargad from all sides, is a story that transcends human perception of mass, time, and space.

It was the beginning of summer, in the month of March that I found myself standing under their united shade, marvelling at their might. At first, all I could see were the broad, tender leaves of Bargad, but as I strained my eyes, the light-shaded peepul leaves shimmered higher in the canopy. How many seasons it must have taken for their trunks to get entwined as a pillar of folds upon folds, with prop roots like necklaces and waist-belts woven all around. The two trunks are now indistinguishable from one another. The trees were in their first flush of leaves for the season.

At times when I can’t interpret what a tree is trying to express, I let the wind do the talking. But the wind has many sounds. The same wind makes the young one flitter as a whisper. The mature flail with a baritone. The old crackle at the end of their days in tenor; do they sing of loss and hope? Standing there, with the villagers gathered around for a meeting finding it a bit too curious seeing someone stare at a tree so fixedly, I tried to eavesdrop on their murmurings in the summer breeze: What do they sing of?

Now I am not a psychic, but I know what youthful dreams are made of. A tree, a century-old or a yearling, is ever young, every flush of leaves, every blossom, every fruit, every new branchlet. The young leaves, their new skin glistening under the summer sun, sing of renewal. Soon, every branchlet will be adorned with little flower-buds. The flowering of Ficus varies among and within species, with a community of trees exhibiting staggered flowering. Not all trees flower at the same time. In some such as Dumar where it fruits en masse all across its trunk, the process is long and continuous as old fruits ripen and young flowers mature. The Bargad and Peepul flower quite arbitrarily. Within a community of trees, a tree might start budding in April while the other won’t until October. In some trees, you will see old ripened fruits – remnants of the previous season – on some branches while other branches sprout new flowers. At least two flowering events are distinguished, once early in the summer and early in the winter (Krishen, 2013). The flowers are among the most secretive one has ever seen, enclosed in a syconium.

The flower-buds are the syconia, containing hundreds if not thousands of flowers. Some species are monoecious: both have male and female flowers in the same syconium, and some are dioecious: where all-female flowering tree exists with a population of hermaphrodite – containing both male and female flowers – trees. The syconia containing both male and female flowers are called caprifigs.

A secret affair

There is an affair these two have kept on the hush for millions of years. Like a moth to a flame, as if out of nothingness, an unlikely creature finds its way to these giants following a trail of scent exactly when they need her: a tiny little Agaonid – the fig wasp. Packed with pollen collected from the fig she emerged from, she follows another tree about to flower in the neighbourhood.

This staggered flowering among Ficus species is key for two things: to enable the miniscule wasps to complete their lifecycle without a long break, and ultimately to get successfully pollinated. Long breaks, long distances, hot summer temperatures, and short lifespans do not add up. Against all odds, the foundress wasp lands on the syconium and carefully inserts herself into a small opening called ostiole, adjusting herself in the small space by sacrificing her wings, and breathes her last after laying several eggs – one each in a flower. In one syconium, many fig wasps enter, and the competition to lay as many eggs as possible is hot.

Dumar is among the most common Ficus trees to witness this. Within a syconium, some flowers possess short while some really long styles – a receptacle for spores which leads down to the ovary. The wasp inserts her ovipositor into the short-styled flowers to lay an egg inside the ovary, but her ovipositor falls short in the long-styled flowers, where she cannot lay an egg – these develop into seeds with the help of the pollen the wasp dispersed first on entering. The short-styled flowers impregnated with a wasp egg start transforming into a gall. Studies have found that the first batch of eggs are usually all-male (Li et al, 2016).

The grubs feed on the pulpy portion of the gall. As the fig matures, the grubs metamorphose into wasps: the males (some are incapable of flight while in some species they fly) arrive early. These males then move around the chamber, fighting one another and making holes into the galls of female wasps, and mate with them while they are still enclosed in their gall. By the time the females emerge the male flowers mature: they move about collecting pollen and shortly after, using their sharp mandibles, the males make a hole in the fruit and die, although some winged-ones fly off to mate with their winged counterparts. These holes are a female fig wasp’s way out to find another fig which will receive her offspring and in doing so, she will deposit the pollen she collected from her abode. The story repeats countless times until the last fig has ripened.

Not all who metamorphose from the syconia are fig wasps the Ficus trees open their hearts to. Some members of Pteromalidae, such as Sycoryctinae and Sycophaginae, that don’t get an entry, carry a weapon: a long, needle-like ovipositor that they insert into the fig from the surface with pin-point precision. These are the non-pollinator wasps. With their long ovipositor, they lay an egg directly into the syconium – mostly in the ovary, where, like the pollinator fig wasps, their larvae form galls – these wasps are called ‘gallers’ (Ghara and Borges, 2010). The males emerge and mate with the females, and the females intently or accidentally collect some pollen before flying out – however, they never enter the syconium again, instead depositing an egg directly from the surface using their needle-like ovipositor, making them non-pollinating in nature.

Some are parasitoids, their target: the larva of the Agaonid wasps. Just as certain Agaonid wasps specialize on certain Ficus species, these non-pollinator wasps also specialise on certain trees. In fact, the length, strength, and shape of their ovipositors differs on the size, thickness, as well as the anthesis period of the figs they specialise on (Ghara, Kundanati and Borges, 2011). At times the figs are teeming with many pollinator and non-pollinator wasps – some help the fig, others are free-loaders, and some others parasitoids. It is all a play of life and death in a small syconia, and the trees are not always the victims.

In some dioecious species, the female and hermaphroditic trees are separate. That’s when it gets tricky. “One of the consequences of such sexual specialization is that reward levels to pollinators often differ between male and female flowers as a result of sexual selection” reads a paper by Martine Hossaert-McKey, Renee Borges, and colleagues who studied the significance of scents in attracting wasps to figs in several species of Ficus, including in India. Just as the Agaonid and the Pteromalid clans compete, there is a game being played by the Ficus trees: “Such specialization leads, in some cases, to cheating by one deceptive sex”, where the female flowers mimic the signals “of the rewarding sex” in order to attract – or deceive – pollinators, which primarily come seeking receptive ovules to lay their eggs. In dioecious Ficus, the scent that female trees emit to attract the fig wasp is similar to that of male trees which are more rewarding in terms of providing pollen and ovules for the wasps – this theory is called the intersexual mimicry hypothesis (Hossaert-McKey et al, 2016).

The authors explain, “Dioecious figs represent a special case of pollination by deceit with fatal consequences for female wasps that enter female figs” with the hermaphrodite trees having “short-styled female flowers” which “serve only as brood sites for pollinators and never develop into seeds.” In such Ficus species, the Agaonid wasps enter this “all-male” syconium to lay eggs. The offspring develop in a similar fashion, the males similarly mate with the females, and the new-born female wasps fly off in search of other flowers after collecting pollen. Some prospecting mothers get enticed by the all-female fig tree and pollinate it on entering. However, these flowers have unusually long styles, acting as a barrier for these small-ovipositor-bearing wasps to lay eggs. “As a result,”, the authors write, “a pollinator wasp (which lives only for a few hours) entering a female fig dies without leaving any offspring; hence female figs produce only seeds.”

The odds stacked against fig wasps are enormous. For the last few million years if not more, it has been tricked in carrying out her functions of pollination without getting anything in return – paying a high price on the survival of her species. However, this is an excellent example of how what seems chaotic at first is carefully crafted by evolution to become orderly. Some species flower asynchronously – the male and the female will mature separately, and some mature synchronously – both male and female flowers mature at the same time. The theories put forth by the authors to understand this conundrum are complex but fascinating: In asynchronous species, such as the Common Fig we call Anjeer, and Karapatra, the hermaphrodite flowers mature early, allowing the wasps to efficiently complete their lifecycle. As the all-female flowers mature, a majority of the wasps’ population has already bred and laid eggs, securing their progeny.

In synchronous species such as Katumbar, where both the male and female flowers mature at the same time, a fig wasp is short on time and energy, hence she enters the first flower she comes across. Another hypothesis expands on this theory: the wasps are unable to choose between male and female flowers due to lack of detectable differences. Since a wasp has to lay eggs to pass on her progeny and a female flower has to get fertilised to pass on hers, they both play a game of chance.

Once the nuances of being a fig and a fig wasp are settled, the syconia, as they ripen, don a rosy or purple hue and a sweet, fermented scent to garner further attention. Now come the vertebrates: birds and bats, rodents and bears, and primates – including humans – to feed on the ripe figs. While humans have found a way to cultivate parthenogenic fig varieties, the caprifigs almost always contain at least a few wasps inside.

Unity in diversity

The convergence of life at Ficus trees is phenomenal. Just as the leaves mature, the tree-hole-nesting birds find the best crevice to build a nest: A Rose-ringed and a Plum-headed Parakeet compete for space as a pair of Brown-headed Barbet resolves to build their own hollow. The Indian Grey Hornbill prefers narrow openings, the owls prefer the largest hollows of them all, and the squirrel nests in cup-shaped spaces that birds do not prefer – which may well be taken over by a civet or, if the tree is tall enough, the flying squirrel. On their wide, round boughs the macaques and langurs dangle their legs as they rest for the afternoon. The ripening first attracts the avian creatures. Amusingly, they eat less and drop more to the ground where the ground-dwellers relish on the figs. At night, a sloth bear might visit during a break from eating ants and mahua flowers.

If the forest is a community, it is trees like Ficus that help build the basic fractions of one. Where the worth of the shade, a place to nest and a bough to rest, of food and solace, cannot be measured on an existing scale: imagine over five species of extremely tiny fig wasps converging upon the same fig which will then be consumed by, among the largest and most intelligent of animals, the elephants and our closest relatives, chimpanzees (figs account for almost half of a chimpanzee’s diet). In summers of India, when a fig tree fruits, our attention gravitates towards it. The feeders are not the only ones to gain, however. The figs are laden with small, spore-like seeds – which make dry figs crunchy – embedded in a sticky mass. While some of them will be digested, some come out the other end: one on a wall of a house, another on a tree, dispersing as far and wide as their feeders take them at will.

The Peepul was likely to have grown on another tree which it devoured as it grew larger than its parent; the villagers could not recollect this incident. What odds it must have taken for the companionship of the Peepul and the Bargad, for those little interactions to fall into place at the right time; little coincidental – accidental even – dealings that created the cosmos.

Why they stand here and the forests do not is also due to a specific reason. Several Ficus species have a place in history. The Bargad symbolizes love. To celebrate the victory of love over death, women tie a thread around the Bargad tree during Vat Poornima wishing for a long life for their spouses. The Peepul symbolizes enlightenment. Gautam Buddha, and many saints of India, meditated under this tree, the “tree of enlightenment”. There is one more symbol that a Ficus stands for: of finding peace and hope in the harshest, most barren surfaces on the planet – the concrete jungles of modern civilization.

They have a place in our cosmos, too. The twenty-seven Nakshatras – stars or constellations – are symbolised on Earth in the Nakshatravana – a sacred forest represented by several species of plants, most of them Ficus: The Krittika Nakshatra is symbolised by Dumar, the Pushya by Peepul, the Magha by Bargad, and the Uttara Phalguni by Gacchi and Peepli. Reincarnations of cosmic entities on Earth. And all it took was a wasp with a conflicted love story.

Not for nothing did Bargad and Peepul, among the most popular of Ficus trees, become so revered. Their magnificence accounts for most of their fame. Stand in front of any of these mighty trees, by the roadside or in the heart of the forest, if it doesn’t inspire awe and wonder, I don’t know what will. In the past, before we built skyscrapers, these trees rallied to reach for the skies, they were the tallest edifices on the highest mountains. A gateway to heaven. A portal to unite with the metaphysical dimension. It was only natural that we would associate with them like we do with the cosmos.

A few yards from the Peepul-Bargad companions stands another Peepul tree only a little shorter. It also supports a Bargad which found its way like the former, and the Bargad, in turn, supports another Ficus – Gacchi, growing from among the nooks and crevices of its companion’s prop roots. Three constellations in one.

Just as the constellations will move the skies – the Milky Way unite with Andromeda – so will their earthly counterparts. In years to come, Gacchi, which is a strangler fig, will perhaps outcompete Bargad, just as Bargad will entirely surround its adopted parent tree. All this while, for eons to come, they will support many lives that will come and go, providing anything they ask for. This is symbolic of a term in ecology we associate with apex predators such as tigers: the keystone species. In tropical forests, the Ficus is among the few tree species to hold the biodiversity like the Sun to the planets. Indeed, in areas devoid of all trees but the holy Ficus, they form a refuge for many invertebrate and vertebrate fauna, offer shade to the bereaved, and a place of worship to those who seek nirvana – a cornerstone for the union of natural and cultural heritage.

Degraded ecosystems are characterised by an irreversible loss of biodiversity. It takes an effort of many-a-decade to bring back the lost sanctuary. As entities that support life – from among the tiniest to the largest, fig trees may act as important stepping stones. Fortunately, every geographic location in India has a specific community of Ficus trees associated with it – it should be in our interest to recruit them in restoration of degraded forests.

In unifying trees and cosmos, I may be pulling strings a little too tight, but am I? The cosmos implies a universe as a complex yet orderly system – the opposite of chaos – a conscious entity. Trees are sentient entities bringing order to chaos. They stand for mutualism, commensalism, competition, parasitism, but also for love and collectivism, reining-in a system that appears inherently chaotic, bringing unity to diversity.

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Ficus trees appearing in the article:
1.       Anjeer (Ficus carica)
2.       Bargad (Ficus benghalensis)
3.       Dumar/ Cluster fig (Ficus racemosa)
4.       Gacchi (Ficus tinctoria)
5.       Katumbar (Ficus hispida)
6.       Karapatra (Ficus exasperata)
7.       Peepul (Ficus religiosa)
8.       Peepli (Ficus arnottiana)

Absolute reading:
Krishen, P. 2013. Jungle trees of central India. Penguin. pp. 400.

Li, Z., Peng, Y., Wen, X., Jander, K C. 2016. Selective resource allocation may promote a sex ratio in pollinator fig wasps more beneficial for the host tree. Nature Scientific Reports. 6. 35159(2016).

Ghara, M. and Borges, R. M. 2010. Comparative life-history traits in a fig wasp community: implications for community structure. Ecological Entomology. 35(139–148). doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2311.2010.01176.x

Ghara, M., Kundanati, L., and Borges, R. M. 2011. Nature’s swiss army knives: ovipositor structure mirrors ecology in a multitrophic fig wasp community. PLoS ONE. 6(8): e23642. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023642e

Hossaert-McKey, M., Proffit, M., Soler, C. C. L., Chen, C., Bessiere, J-M., Schatz, B., and Borges, R. M. 2016. How to be a dioecious fig: Chemical mimicry between sexes matters only when both sexes flower synchronously. Nature Scientific Reports. 6. 21236(2016).

based on Bunney, K., Bond, W. J, and Henley, M. 2017. Seed dispersal kernel of the largest surviving megaherbivore – the African savanna elephant. BioTropica. 49(3). 395–401. https://doi.org/10.1111/btp.12423 - while this study does not dwell upon fig consumption by elephants, they do consume ripe figs given a chance, aiding in the dispersal of Ficus trees.

Sarusi, D. 10 Things Chimpanzees Eat. The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. Retrieved from: https://janegoodall.ca/

For more on fig and fig wasp-related research in India: http://ces.iisc.ernet.in/renee/publications.html

All illustrations created for representation purposes only and may differ in form, colour, or scale from live specimens. Additional references for illustrations:
van Noort, S. & Rasplus, JY. 2019. Figweb: figs and fig wasps of the world. Retrieved from: www.figweb.org

van Noort, S. 2019. WaspWeb: Hymenoptera of the Afrotropical region. Retrieved from: www.waspweb.org

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