The water drops on this Ficus septica leaf are not the result of rain or early morning dew  but have been expelled by the plant itself an activity known as “guttation”. Guttation is common with many species of figs including Ficus elastica and Ficus chartaceae.  

All photographs in this article are by Honor Phillipps  and include several different individual Ficus septica plants.

SEPTIC FIG Ficus septica Burm (1768)   SECTION: SYCOCARPUS

Greek: septic, putrid, referring to the poisonous latex and its corrosive effect on human skin.  An alternative common name is White-veined Fig, referring to the prominent white veins on the upper surface of the leaf.

Habit:  Large shrub to small tree (25m) often along roadsides and in gardens, city plots or areas of poor soil. The most common roadside fig in Sabah but absent from Sarawak and large areas of Kalimantan.

Leaf: Large spirally arranged leaves up to 15 x 30 cm, with prominent white veins. White dots on the leaf  (hydathodes) used for expelling excess water (guttation) are often very noticeable.

Fig: The ridged figs are ramiflorus growing along the branches and ripen green to yellow/green in a steady sequence night after night attracting “traplining” fruit bats and palm civets to visit regularly.

Sex: Dioecious

Distinguish: The large dark green floppy leaves with prominent white veins mimic the appearance of the leaves of similar small trees with bat dispersed fruit such as Morinda citrfolia and Poikilosperniuim suaveolens. The young twigs are hollow and the glands on the nodes attract black ants.

Similar species: Ficus lepicarpa and F. septica are often found together eg at Tabin, Sabah but F. lepicarpa prefers more shade and dampness. Lepicarpa figs also ripen green but are ridged latitudinally not longitudinally and develop a scurfy’ brown surface when ripe.

Distribution: Abundant in many areas of Borneo but curiously missing from others. Very common in both urban and forested areas of Sabah up to 1,500m on Kinabalu but absent from Sarawak and West Kalimantan where it appears to be replaced by F grossularioldes as the most common roadside fig. Ficus septica is tolerant of both limestone, eg on Pulau Maratua and on ultramafic soils eg Kinabalu and Gunung Silam. The  most common fig on the coral atol of Pulau Maratua, E. Kalimantan where it is dispersed by Island Flying Fox and Cynopterus Fruit Bats.

Range: N. India east to Taiwan, south to Queensland, Australia, and east to the Solomon Islands. Absent from Singapore.

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Ficus septica often grows in vacant building plots in the centre of Kota Kinabalu. The seeds probably originate from small Cynopterus fruit bats which  drop them when flying over the town at night.
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Ficus septica. Notice that the white veins act like  road markings for bats guiding them  at night to the ripe figs. Similar leaves with prominent white veins are commonly found on other bat dispersed fruit e.g  Morinda citrifolia, as well as with other bat dispersed figs.
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Ficus septica. The open ostioles at the base of these figs indicate that they are male Ficus septica fig fruit which produce pollinating fig wasps not seeds. Male figs are not eaten by dispersers such as bats and civets and eventually either rot on the tree or fall to the ground.
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Ficus septica. Notice that only one of the  female figs on this branch is ripe (yellow green rather than green). Female Ficus septica figs ripen one at a time to attract “traplining” civets and bats so that they will return to the same tree every night in a daily (nightly) routine and eat and disperse the fig before seed predators destroy the seeds.