WHEN A FIG IS NOT A FIG

Mention the word ‘fig’ and this image springs to mind:

Our neighbours have such a fig tree in their garden that sometimes bends with the weight of delicious edible fruit. A succession of families living there over the years have ignored their plump ripeness, leaving them for the Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Redwinged Starlings and Blackeyed Bulbuls to devour!

The enormous Natal fig tree in our garden produces an abundance of tiny fruits that are inedible for humans, yet are a magnet for an enormous variety of birds. This African Green Pigeon among them:

So, when is a fig not a fig? When it belongs to the ice plant or Mesembryanthemacae family. There is such a variety of these plants indigenous to South Africa that they probably deserve a fat guide book all to themselves. Whatever their actual scientific designation, they are commonly known here as mesembs or vygies (little figs). Let me show you why:

Once these beautifully silky flowers have fruited, the fruiting capsules bear a strong resemblance to a little fig (vygie):

MY SECRET GARDEN REVISITED

The drought has not been kind to my ‘secret’ garden, deliberately left ‘wild’ and undisturbed for the benefit of creatures either living there or finding shelter and sustenance. Several trees and shrubs have died, leaving open spaces and creating sunny spots. This is a view from it looking up the steps to the rest of the front garden.

Over the years the mulch made up of leaves, twigs – and Hadeda ibis droppings – has grown thick and spongy underfoot.

A dead fiddle-wood is kept company by a cluster of other trees growing straight up to reach the light. On the right are branches of another tree that has fallen down during the strong winds.

Behind them the Natal fig towers over everything, its base covered by clivias.

The lowing of cows (part of the Urban Herd) drew me to that spot this morning. These are only a few of many gathered on the verge of a main road leading into town. The curtain of foliage is courtesy of the fig tree.

HOW GREEN IS MY … GARDEN

I keep harping on about the drought, and with good reason for both Howieson’s Poort and Settler’s Dam have run out of water – leaving our town in dire straits. The very light (and little) rain that has fallen has not been enough to provide the much-needed runoff that will make its way to these vital storage dams. Nonetheless, the rain has made a noticeable difference to the vegetation and has been captured in hollows, such as this aloe leaf in my garden

The aloes now have a beautifully green backdrop that provides shelter for the birds.

Our forested garden is becoming rejuvenated: the Natal Fig is heavy with fruit that attracts African Green Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Olive Thrushes, and many other birds. The pompon trees are filled with swelling buds that will soon provide a beautiful display of pink flowers – and the Cape Chestnut is already blooming!

Fine droplets of welcome rain cling to the leaves of a canary creeper.

It is a pleasure to sit in the shade outdoors and to enjoy all of this green – last December our garden looked apocalyptically brown and skeletal!

WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.

No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.

It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!

While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.

The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.

Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.

We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.

We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.

A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.