Ficus sansibarica


Family : Moraceae
Common names : Zanzibar fig, knobbly fig, wild fig (Eng.); knoppiesvy (Afr.); Inkokhokho (Swazi); Mohlapu (SN); Nhlampfu (TS); Mutamvu, Muuno, Muvumo, Mudzulatshinya (Venda); Mutsamvo (Ndau); Shinshamfaan (Ironga)
SA Tree no. : 47
Zimbabwe Tree no. : 61

This knobbly fig presents an imposing display with its spreading crown and bears enormous fruiting spurs along the stem.

Ficus sansibarica fruiting spursFicus sansibarica is a large tree with a spreading crown, up to 20 x 30 m. It may grow as an ordinary, stand-alone tree or a strangler; if it does that, it usually starts life in the branches of a host plant, sending down aerial roots that encircle the tree and finally kill it so that it stands alone. The knobbly fig is generally evergreen but may be partially deciduous during drought. It is usually without aerial roots, and contains milky latex. The bark is grey to dark grey, smooth, uneven and does not peel off. The main stem is usually short, forming branches low down and bearing numerous unbranched fruiting spurs. The branches are slightly flaking and hairless. The fruits are 40 mm, hairless, and dark purple with yellow-green dots when ripe, and are borne singly or up to four in a cluster. The fruits are edible but unpleasant.

Distribution and habitat
The knobbly fig is found in South Africa in Mpumalanga, Lowveld and Limpopo; in Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. It is generally limited to diverse, semi-deciduous, coastal scrub forest and low-altitude riverine forest, also occurring in bushveld, on deep sandy soil and in lowveld areas along the base of the escarpment, mainly on rocky hills.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
The species name, sansibarica is derived comes from the word Zanzibar, which is the island on which this species was first discovered and collected in October 1889 by the German naturalist, Franz Ludwig Stuhlmann (18631928).

The knobbly fig produces a lot of figs which attracts a wide range of fruit-eating birds, fruit bats, baboons, monkeys, insects as well as insectivorous birds which feed upon the wasps that pollinate the figs. New fruit appears from September and they ripen from December to March, although some trees have fruits on them as late as May or June. The leaves are also browsed by elephants, giraffe, kudu and nyala. The fruit has a thick, bright pink or maroon flesh when fully ripe and tastes bitter, but is a favourite of squirrels and local people. All the birds, insects and bats attracted to the fruit, create a magnificent mini-environment.

Ficus sansibarica figs

Uses and cultural aspects
On Inhaca Island, off Mozambique, the tree is held to be sacred by most communities (Mogg 1969) and is scrupulously protected (objections were raised even to cut one or two twigs as specimens!). Generally the wood is light and soft, pale brown and probably not used at all. In countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, it was occasionally grown for shade and in parks.

Growing Ficus sansibarica

It is rarely cultivated because of the enormous crop of large fruits that may be considered by some to be messy but the tree grows easily from seed, cuttings or truncheons, it is frost-tender but drought-tolerant, and also makes a fine container subject for a warm patio or sunny room.

References and further reading

  • Burrows, J. & Burrows, S. 2003. Figs of southern and south-central Africa. Umdaus Press, Hatfield, Pretoria.
  • Coates Palgrave, K. 1981. Trees of southern Africa, edn 2. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Mogg 1969.
  • Schmidt, E., Lotter, M. & McCleland, W. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana, Johannesburg.
  • Van Wyk, A.E. (Braam) & Van Wyk, P. 1997. Field guide to trees of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Van Wyk, P. 1984. Field guide to the trees of the Kruger National Park. Struik, Cape Town



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Lowveld National Botanical Garden
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