• The desert fig, used by central First Nations people for its shade and sustenance, has been recognised by western science. (Australian Institute of Botanical Science)Source: Australian Institute of Botanical Science
NITV Staff Writer

24 Nov 2021 - 4:20 PM  UPDATED 24 Nov 2021 - 4:52 PM

A species of fig tree, used for millennia by First Nations people for its abundant food and generous shelter, has been recognised for the first time by western science. 

A Ficus desertorum, or 'desert fig', was found hiding in plain sight on the slopes of Uluru.

Until recently a single widespread species, Ficus brachypoda, was the only kind recognised in central Australia.

But new research shows central Australian populations represent a distinct species, previously confused with northern relatives.

The figs have been described as an incredibly significant species to First Nations peoples in central Australia, for food, shelter, and spirituality. 

While scientists said 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).

The new name was chosen after consultation with Traditional Owners to see if an Indigenous name might be appropriate.

Indigenous names include tywerrk (Alyawarr; Anmatyerr); tjurrka (Arrente); utyeerk, utyeerke (Eastern Arrente); tywerrke (Western Arrente); ili, witjirrki, yili (Pintupi); ili (Pitjantjatjara / Yankunytjatjara); wÿirrki (Warlpiri). The figs as a food are known as mai pulka (Yankunytjatjara).

As no Indigenous name spans all language groups, choosing any one of the existing names was perceived as effectively excluding others from the same degree of significance. Botanists were asked to choose a ‘standard’ scientific name for the species.

The trees are used as shelter by the western bowerbird and a wide variety of native snails that gain valuable shade in an otherwise arid environment.

The roots of figs have been reported following cracks in cliff walls for over 40 metres in order to reach precious water which might be hiding deep within the rock, or far below in a secluded pool.

In this way, the desert fig persists in the arid conditions found in the heart of Australia.

First Nations food and culture the focus at new Melbourne restaurant
'Big Esso' in Melbourne's Federation Square will make native ingredients the "hero" of modern dishes, and harks back to the chef's childhood in the Torres Strait