ABOVE: Ficus microcarpa in Sarawak from A R Wallace (1865) The Malay Archipelago

JEJAWI   Ficus microcarpa  Miq. (1837)  SECTION CONOSYCEA

[Malayan Banyan] [Indian Laurel]  [Ficus retusa] Etymology: Greek: Tiny fruit.

Habit: A common very large  banyan (with numerous  stilt roots). May establish as a epiphyte and grow into a strangler but also grows as a stand alone tree. Native to coastal beach forest and brackish swamps  throughout Borneo.

Cultivation: Along with Ficus benjamina this is one of the most cultivated ornamental figs in Borneo. Imported varieties with yellow or variegated leaves  are  used in landscaping and clipped into hedging or shaped into topiary mushrooms or umbrellas. Numerous dwarf varieties are grown as bonsai worldwide.

Sex: Monoecious (bisexual)  

Fig: The tiny figs (0.5-1.0 cm) grow in pairs in the leaf axils at the ends of the branches. Figs ripen green to white to pink to purple, attracting many birds including green pigeons, bulbuls, starlings and hornbills.

Similar species: Frequently confused with F. benjamina which has similar sized leaves and is equally common in Borneo’s towns.

Distinguishing wild Ficus microcarpa

(1) By the “banyan” growth form with numerous curtains of thin reddish roots hanging from the spreading branches which often grow into pillar supports. F. benjamina rarely has more than a few hanging roots.

(2) F. benjamina leaves have a drip tip absent in F. microcarpa 

(3) The ripe fig has a 3-way slit (bracts) covering the ostiole. These bracts are absent in F. benjamina.

(4) Figs ripen green – white – pink – purple – black. F. benjamina figs ripen green – yellow – orange – red – black

(5) F. benjamina branches normally hang downwards hence the name “weeping fig” whereas Jejawi branches grow upwards.

Distinguishing Pot Plants: Both F. microcarpa and F. benjamina are cultivated as pot plants throughout the world.  If you look at the underside of a leaf there is usually a clear wax secretion at the junction of the leaf and the stalk in F. benjamina which is absent in F. microcarpa.

Cultural significance: Jejawi is a very important tree in both local Chinese and Malay culture  An extract of the boiled roots is a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine to reduce fever. Many Chinese believe that large F. microcarpa fig trees host “datuks” powerful spirits which can bring both good and bad luck. Malay legends refer to female  ghosts hosted by the tree. Trees should not be disturbed lest the ghosts leave the tree to haunt the person damaging the tree. The curtain of reddish dangling roots has been compared to the hair of  these  pontianaks,  who are said to appear at night carrying headless babies on their backs.

Distribution: Typically grows in freshwater swamp forest at the back of mangroves eg at the Panaga Club, Seria, Brunei. Kuala Abai at the mouth of the Kinabatangan river  and at Labuk Bay near Sandakan. At Tg Aru, Kota Kinabalu, grows on many beach casuarina trees. During typhoons these casuarinas often fall over due to the extra wind resistance provided by the fig. May also be planted as an ornamental far inland eg at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah and Tenom Agricultural Park, Sabah.

Native Range: India and Sri Lanka  north to southern Japan, south to  northern Australia and east to the Solomon islands and New Caledonia in the Pacific. Native to Christmas Island south of Java but not the Cocos Keeling islands. A common native tree in Singapore.

Currently the range is rapidly expanding   throughout the warmer countries of the world including the Americas, Africa, the Middle east and Southern Europe but rarely invasive.

Compton et al (2015) Fig wasp followers of introduced Ficus microcarpa

Tan et al (2010) Ficus microcarpa for waterways in Singapore

Corlett (1985) Phenology of F. benjamina and F. microcarpa in Singapore