Figs are one of the world’s most recognisable trees and extensively used by First Nations peoples, but until recently a single widespread species, Ficus brachypoda, was the only kind recognised in central Australia.
Systematic botanist Dr Russell Barrett says new research shows central Australian populations represent a distinct species, previously confused with northern relatives, which they’ve now described as Ficus desertorum, or the desert fig.
Go figure: A case of mistaken identity
“Careful study of collections held in herbaria across Australia, and with reference to historical specimens held in European herbaria, showed that the central Australian populations were indeed morphologically distinct from more northern or western populations,” Dr Barrett says.
“These figs are an incredibly significant species to First Nations peoples in central Australia, for food, shelter, and spirituality. Damaging these trees could be punishable by death historically, such is their significance to the whole community.
"While the species is quite widespread, and not currently threatened, it is only found in small populations, so shifts in climate, or localised impacts such as hot fires, could impact the species in the near future.”
The culturally significant plant also grows on other elevated landscapes in central Australia, including Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles).