Ficus cerasicarpa, the Cherry Fig.

Ficus cerasicarpa fruit Foliage

Cerasicarpa is an inland species of rock fig that grows across tropical Northern Australia. It’s said to grow from Central Western Queensland, northwest to Northern NT and west through to Northern WA.

Ficus cerasicarpa fruit 1
Ficus cerasicarpa fruit 1

 

Twice I’ve looked for cerasicarpa in Western Australia. With co-ordinates from previous collections, all the plants I came across turned out to be platypoda. Cerasicarpa may grow in WA, I just haven’t seen any. Nor have I seen the collected specimens of cerasicarpa from WA, so I can’t say for sure that this species spreads as far as WA. It’s my feeling that it doesn’t.

I’ve also looked for cerasicarpa in Northern NT. From Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine and across to WA, not finding one. There were trees in Kakadu that I thought might be cerasicarpa but I now feel these trees don’t conform to any of the current species and may be transitional forms of cerasicarpa or new species. If cerasicarpa doesn’t grow in central to north NT then there’s little chance of it growing in WA. Again, I haven’t seen the herbarium collections from NT so I don’t really know if cerasicarpa truly grows in NT.

So it came time to look for the ‘type’ specimen. I believe the type was found near Cloncurry. So with my list of gps locations, camping gear and my amazingly patient wife, we flew to the smelly mining town of Mount Isa, in far Western Queensland.

One collection had be made at Mt Isa mine, so I started the search by driving around the outside of the mine. Looking in the general area of a collection is normally all it takes to find a plant, but this tree was not wanting to be found!

After a couple of days driving around, I decided to ask for access to the mine. The gps location for this tree pointed directly at the hole in the middle of the mine, so I knew I wasn’t going to find this particular tree. Lucky for me the mines biologist was great guy and happily drove me to some other locations that might be suitable for figs. But still nothing!

While driving back to camp the mines biologist rang to tell me there was a tree with red fruit right outside the window of Meteorology building. With the sun going down we made it back to the mine and to my relief I was looking at my first cerasicarpa!

I think this is the tree the co-ordinates were taken for but apparently when the collections were databased they were all lumped into the middle of the mine site.

 

Ficus cerasicarpa fruit Mount Isa Mine
Ficus cerasicarpa Mount Isa Mine

 

The next day after having a win, we drove the short trip east to Cloncurry. We found nothing at the next co-ordinates except for miles of road works. Looking around I noticed a small rocky peak poking up to the east of town. Through my binoculars I could see three trees that looked like they could be figs!

After a decent walk and a bit of climbing in the hot midday sun, I’d come across three more cerasicarpa growing on the rocky cliff. Hopefully this mountain will be saved from the highway that is going through the area. This may be one of the few locations this species grows and it looked like half the cliff had already been removed.

The fruit was smaller than the that of playpoda and without the large persistent bracts that can cover them. Like platypoda fruit, it was hairy, about 1.5cm or so in width with long thin peduncles.

The fruit I saw had stems around 1cm long, maybe 2mm thick. I think there’s a photo in Dale’s paper that has fruit with stems almost like real cherries, a lot thinner and longer than the plants I came across. I believe I managed to find the ‘type’ east of Cloncurry, but it had no fruit.

 

Ficus cerasicarpa fruit 3
Ficus cerasicarpa ripe fruit, dark purple and soft.

 

Ficus cerasicarpa fruit 2
Ficus cerasicarpa, pretty much ripe fruit, wasp holes can be seen at the top left.

 

I know the fruit from other species of fig can vary a fair bit from year to year, so maybe the long thin stems only occur under certain situations? It’d be interested to see more trees in fruit to check if this long thin peduncle is a common feature.

The foliage of cerasicarpa is smaller, more delicate and more compact than platypoda. It’s also more green with a similar covering of short soft hair. The trees I saw were short, around 3 to 5 metres tall and probably as wide, with low spreading branches and no obvious main trunk. All were growing in raised rocky ground,  the rocks possibly storing water for the trees.

This species appears to be very closely related to platypoda. My thought is that cerasicarpa, platypoda and other forms of hairy leaf figs in central Australia, are local populations of a the one species. They probably all interbred and may be more suitably named as varieties than species, but that battle is for others to fight!