Story behind the art of Beverly Allen 

Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

New Guinea Dinner Plate Fig 

Ficus dammaropsis
Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, Australia

I have been visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney since I was a child and it is still my wonderful local botanic garden, so it was a natural choice for this exhibition. Established in 1816, it has been a botanical garden in the true sense, a collection of interesting and rare plants. Historically, the RBGS has collected and successfully grown many sub tropical and tropical plants.

I explored a number of its trees with historical and/or horticultural significance as well as others purely for their ‘paintability’. As an artist, I wanted a subject that excited me visually, that demanded to be painted. I am typically drawn to the unusual and interesting species, and I love a good leaf! 

I’ve long been attracted to this tree, Ficus dammaropsis, the New Guinea Dinner Plate Fig, because of its extremely large, pleated, glossy leaves which are spectacular, and the spiral arrangement adds to the eye-catching display. However, it is planted towards the centre of one of the larger beds (41b) in the Tropical Horticulture area of the Garden and for years one couldn’t get up close to it.  Then bark paths were created through the bed and I began to paint it, and returned to it as the most appealing subject for this exhibition. I had been given a lower branch that would have dropped fairly soon, as well as some fruits by the curator of the Gardens.  


The plant dictated the composition to a large degree. The branches curve downwards with four to five leaves at the tip.  It is painted life size, and the size of the leaves, up to 3 feet long and 2 feet wide, make it a large painting. However, the angle of the leaves from the branch mean that the depth of the perspective enables one to include it all. It fills the space and this helps indicated the large size. The inclusion of a sectioned fruit also helps indicate the size. In my painting, four oval shaped leaves surround some round yellow-green fruits and a small bright bronze-red new leaf in the centre. The fruit is shown cut in half at the base of the painting, both to indicate the natural size and to indicate the symbiotic relationship between insects and plants.


The F. dammaropsis is an example of the vital relationship between insects and plants. Like all figs, the male and female flowers are held inside a multiple fruit known as a syconium. The miniscule wasp Ceratosolen abnormis enters the syconium through the small hole at the end of the fruit. The female wasp enters to lay her eggs, then the male and female wasps hatch inside the fruit, and the males complete their lifecycle inside the fruit after fertilising the female. The fertilised females leave the fruit through an opening created by the male wasps and carry pollen from the male flowers to another fig fruit of the same species, thus pollinating its female flowers and ensuring seed is produced. Neither fig nor the wasp can reproduce without this relationship: without the wasp there can be no seeds for the fig and without the protection offered by the fruit of the fig tree there is no perpetuation of the species for the wasp. Seed is not produced in these trees in the Sydney Gardens because this wasp species does not occur in Australia.


This tree is native to the Papua New Guinea highlands, which are remote and fairly inaccessible areas. The people may protect saplings but aren’t known to plant seeds. They cook and eat the young leaves with pork, and use the large outer leaves for wrapping pork meat for cooking and lining ovens. The fruit are rarely eaten; it is an emergency food and then only the outer bracts of the fruit are eaten. The bark is used for making string and head coverings. 


Read more about this artist’s work: Weird, Wild and Wonderful


  • © 2016 Beverly Allen
    New Guinea Dinner Plate Fig
    Ficus dammaropsis
    Watercolor on paper
    27-1/2" x 21-1/2"