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Abundant Future: Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field


Mutual Dependence

Ficus punctata

This artwork of the climbing wild fig was initially requested by an Indonesian biologist researcher for her presentation at the National Geographic Festival in Hong Kong as the silvery gibbon's favorite diet. This project made me feel lucky to be a botanical artist, to have the opportunity to learn a lot about the special plant genus and the amazing story behind this modest "fruit."

A syconium, often mistakenly perceived as a "fruit", is actually an "inflorescence", a unique enclosed, hollow receptacle with multiple florets inside. This unusual structure makes fig pollination truly intricate. A fig species often relies on a single, highly specialized species of wasp, that is also totally dependent upon that fig, in order to breed; without each other, neither species would survive. In this painting, Wiebesia contubernalis (the fig wasps) and Ficus punctata are shown as mutually dependent.

The story of fig wasp somehow made me sorry for it. After forcing her way through a tiny ostiole, often losing her wings and antennae in the process, the mother wasp will deposit her eggs into ovules of short-styled flowers with her short ovipositor, while avoiding the long-styled flowers. She also simultaneously sheds the pollen she carried from other syconium and pollinates the remaining female flowers. She dies and is digested by the fig, providing nourishment. The short-style flowers will grow her babies while the long one will develop into the fig seeds. Once the eggs hatch, the male wasps, mostly wingless and likely never leave the host or see the sun, will mate with the females and later chew a hole so that the females can escape from the fig’s thick interior and fly to do her roles. This happens just as the male flowers have matured their pollen sacs. The tiny female wasps will travel far away in her short life to lay her eggs in another syconium, carrying the fig pollen to continue the existence of both species.

There's another thrill, and it is the existence of non-pollinating wasps. The parasitic ones have an extremely long ovipositor to inject their eggs from outside. Their children will eat true pollinators and destroy the seeds of the fig. Sad? But the fig tree knows. They will abort the unripe "fruits" inhabited by parasites, letting those without developed seeds fall off.

While holding the specimens from Mount Halimun, West Java, on my hands, I pondered how is it that these simple things were able to do that, how each species connected in a certain way, co-evolved for millions of years, and kept the relationship stable for so long. It led me to a deeper question of how we, humans, interact with nature. Shouldn't we give our best respect to our planet earth that is full of miracles, and provides us with home and life?

Not all specimens arrived to my house in the best condition. The researcher said that they had to pick up fallen "fruits" because the fig tree climbed too high up in the forest. So, observing the specimens was another thrill. They were unripe and hard to cut. Several times I almost threw them in surprise when I saw a larva or two wriggling inside. The syconium also produced white, very sticky sap when cut, making it hard to dissect or untangle the tiny flowers.

I started drawing, adding elements whenever I had new data and ideas, including the enlarged florets, male and female flowers, and of course the fig wasp. Lucky me that the gibbon researcher generously provided the materials and information that I needed. She even hunted for "fruits" with the tiny wasps inside so that I could get the microscopic images of it.

Painting hundreds of flowers that overlap with each other took extra patience, but the most challenging part for me was the unique texture of the syconia's outer surface. Its fine velvety hairs over the spotted surface with some gradations of color were hard to depict. The epithet "punctate" is the Latin for 'with dots/spots', referring to the speckled fruits and to the dots on the abaxial surface of the leaves. I surely didn't want to miss them. I planned my layers carefully, combining the application of masking fluid, watercolor washes, and a little gouache.

I learned a lot from working on this painting. Not only how to paint the species properly, but also how amazing they are. With the help of the wasp, figs play a crucial role in providing food all year round for many birds, bats, gibbons, and other animals, supporting the entire ecosystem. Of course, cultivating figs without the need for pollinators would be convenient, but isn't it a bit dull in comparison with the natural history of the figs and fig wasps?


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Abundant Future-nugroho-mutual-dependence

Ficus punctata

Mutual Dependence

Watercolor on paper

11-7/8 x 19-3/4 inches

©2018 Eunike Nugroho

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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