Syconia and Sycamore

Published: June 15th, 2009 | Updated: 17/01/15

Syconia and flowers

The typical inflorescence of the genus [Ficus] is syconium (pl. – syconia) where minute flowers open into the hollow central inflorescence (Figs. 7.2.1-7.2.3). In sycomore the syconia are carried on branchlets developed on the thick lignified trunks. This phenomenon is known as caulifloria (Figs. 7.2.1, 7.2.2) and is present in many plants of tropical origin. It is also the case in Israel’s flora in [Ceratonia siliqua] (carob tree) and [Cercis siliquastrum] (red buds, Judas tree). The Arabic name for the tree or the syconia is “joumaez” and is derived from ancient names mentioned in the Mishna. These words were GAMZIYOT – for the thin branchlets carrying the syconia and the name GAMZUZIN for the sycomore’s syconia. The principal function of the sycomore in ancient agricultural life in Israel was the production of timber. However, the juicy red syconia attracts the attention of those who see it in the field.

When looking at the syconium it is hard to guess that there are plenty of minute flowers inside. When eating a ripe red and juicy-sweet syconium, most people will consider the minute whitish balls as seeds. However, the structure and life cycle of the syconia is complicated, and I am sorry that so far I can offer only the Hebrew article written by J. Galil (1966). The female flowers are clearly seen in a longitudinal section (Fig. 7.2.3); they are present on the lower part of the flower circle that opens towards the syconium’s central cavity. The white-yellow balls are empty ovaries or galls developed from the ovaries and contain minute sycomore-wasps. The structure of a female flower is seen in the lower-left corner of Fig. 7.2.4. Male flowers are present in the upper part of the flower circle (Fig. 7.2.3). Galls are formed here also as a result of the wasp activity. At the top of the circle (at “12 o’clock”) there are scales through which the wasp passes when entering the syconium.

Fig. 7.2.1: A sycomore trunk densely covered with maturing syconia (“paga” in Hebrew) in their high season – summer.

Fig. 7.2.2: Sycomore syconia carried on special thin stems known in the Talmud as “gamziyot”. This phenomenon is known in botanical literature as “caulifloria”. The syconium is an inflorescence opened to show an internal cavity partly sealed by 5 scales around its mouth.

These scales are a kind of private door fitting the structure and life cycle of the sycomore’s wasp. Five scales are seen from the “mouth” direction (Fig. 7.2.2). Extending the view of Ficus syconia I added photos of the trunk of a Ficus sp. from tropical Argentina. It has thick, and non-branched thin branchlets (Fig. 7.2.5). A cross section of its syconium (Fig. 7.2.6) display flowers opening towards the syconium cavity. Since the wasp adapted to this [Ficus] species did not come to lay eggs in the flowers, no seed-like galls developed and the syconium will fall off when aging. The system of scales closing the syconium mouth differs from that of fig ([Ficus carica]) or sycomore. Each [Ficus] species has its specific wasp, they live in a kind of symbiosis and have a sophisticated mutual morphological compatability.

Fig. 7.2.3: A sycomore’s syconium that became juicy although its flowers were not pollinated. Galls that look like small fruits developed in the lower female flowers, containing pupae of the sycomore wasp.

Fig. 7.2.4: The life cycle of the sycomore syconium (from Galil 1966).

Fig. 7.2.5: Another species of Ficus with caulifloria and syconia developed on non-branched “gamziyot”. Planted in an ornamental garden in tropical Argentina.

Fig. 7.2.6: A longitudinal cross-section of a syconium in Fig. 450. The flowers are not pollinated and no galls develop there.

Sycomore Fig Dressing

The task of translating the biblical word BOLAES is well nigh impossible as it appears only once, in the book of Amos. Galil (1966) explained in length why this word means making a slash with a knife on the syconium, thus accelerating the ripening time. He presented a knife that was used in Cyprus in the years he studied it (Fig. 7.2.7 left); he brought also an ancient relief from Thebey, Egypt. All the figs in that relief were treated with such a knife (Fig. 7.2.7 – right). During an excursion to Nahal Shikma, southern Philistean Plain, in the 1960s, I saw a few syconia slashed with a straight knife following the ancient tradition (Fig. 453 – right).

Fig. 7.2.7: Figures from Galil (1966) related to “blisa” (a unique word in the Bible concerning a cut made to accelerate the ripening time).

Fig. 7.2.8: The trunk on the left carries syconia which ripened without human assistance. A few syconia were cut in the ancient style on the trunk on the right by a passer-by, using a straight knife.