Endangered Species: Egypt’s tree of love

The ficus sycomorus, or sycamore fig, is an ancient tree that has been cultivated in Egypt since the third millennium BC.

This tree can grow to reach a height of 20-25 meters, a trunk girth of six meters, and possesses a dense crown of spreading branches which offer a delightful shade up to a few hundred square meters.

One of the peculiarities of this tree is the fact that its fruit–rosy, plump figs arranged in clusters–grow directly on the trunk. This fig tree is native to Africa and also to be found in Lebanon, Cyprus, and in the Southern Arabian Peninsula.

Professor al-Mewafy al-Ghadban, responsible for the greenhouse and botanical garden in Egypt’s National Gene Bank, relates how the sycamore tree was introduced to Egypt from the Southern Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia. “The ancient Egyptians widely cultivated this tree, which they called the “tree of love,” and the fruit, the twig and the wood of the sycamore tree is represented on the tombs of the early, middle and late kingdoms,” he says.

There are various reasons to explain why the ancient Egyptians felt such infatuation with this sycamore. First, they relished relaxing under the tree’s dense foliage for its shade, freshness and breeze and for its figs, which were deemed to reduce the level of sugar in the blood and have a savory taste. On the other hand, the tree’s bark and latex were used for many purposes, some medicinal, as the latex is efficient in treating skin diseases when rubbed on the epidermis. Finally, the hard wood of the sycamore was used for fuel, while the softest part was used for carvings and furniture making, and the leaves constituted a good fodder for domestic animals.

“The sycamore wood was used for the coffins and furniture of the dead included in their graves,” al-Ghadban explains. The ancient Egyptians would also place the sycamore’s fruits in their tombs, as an ex-voto to the dead.

The sycamore tree has become symbolic over time. In Matareya, a fantastically old and sprawling sycamore tree is believed to have provided shade, shelter and food to the Virgin Mary and her son as they traveled through the area.

The sycamore however does not propagate itself naturally in Egypt any more, since the insect responsible for the pollination of the tree became extinct. “The wasp in charge of transporting the pollen from one tree to another is extinct,” says Irina Springuel, former professor of ecology at the University of South Valley in Aswan. Also making it difficult for the tree to proliferate is the fact that it does not create a proper seed, and the few that can be collected from the fruit have a mediocre viability.

Springuel says “the only way to propagate the tree in Egypt today is by making cuttings, which is an artificial way of multiplying this tree.” She adds that only a few hundred individuals are still growing in Egypt today, but the tree’s original functions are still highly appreciated today: “This tree continues to be a symbol of ancient Egypt.”

Considered “rare,” the sycamore tree which used to grow in every village in Egypt is now reduced to a few hundred in number. However the Ministry of Environment currently does not have a project in place to salvage it.

In Cairo, some beautiful specimens of the sycamore tree can be observed in the Museum of Agriculture in Dokki, in Shubra and in Matareya.

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