The Queen of Trees
Kenya's Fig Trees Under Threat?

Fig Trees Under Threat?

The Queen of Trees reveals Africa’s sycomore fig to be a major player in local ecosystems. A single sycomore can produce tons of fruit each year, providing food for everything from insects and fish to birds and monkeys.

But filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone say that land use changes and other problems are threatening the sycomore’s future in Kenya.

“Traditionally, the figs did fairly well [in Kenya], because they have a rather light wood and it’s not a kind of timber most people want to use,” says Deeble. The bigger threat, Stone believes, is agriculture or land clearing for other purposes. “One of the valleys we worked in used to be full of fig trees,” she recalls. “But they’ve all been cut down and people are growing tomatoes now.”

Honey hunters in Kenya  

Honey hunters in Kenya

Another problem for figs — and people — is a growing lack of water in some regions due to deforestation and diversion for irrigation. Figs are particularly partial to riverbanks, but “when you cut down the trees, you not only lose the shade, but there is more evaporation, so you lose water too,” explains Stone. “If you are lucky, the river may flow only a few weeks a year.” Just a few miles down the same valley, an entire groundwater fig forest is threatened by the actions of a few farmers upstream.

In some parts of Kenya, it is still traditional to leave fig trees standing even when land is cleared. That’s because the trees are a valuable source of honey from bees that build their hives in holes in the trunks. Honey hunters use small, smoky fires to pacify the bees so that they can take the honey without being stung. But sometimes, Deeble says, the fires are not put out and end up damaging or killing the sycomore fig. “Sometimes the wood can smolder for days, unnoticed, before it bursts into flame. So you see trees with burn scars or limbs burned off. Sometimes the tree dies.”

The filmmakers explain that how figs are treated in Kenya can vary greatly from region to region. One tribe, the Kikuyu, considers the trees to be sacred, and maintains them carefully. Deeble and Stone hope that their film, which will be shown in Kenya, will help make that kind of reverence for the amazing sycomore fig even more widespread.

  • Chetna Bhatt

    Excellent … I am from Kenya and I am so proud to see that you have made this beautiful documentary with all the various insects and birds existing side by side with the crocodiles and the monkeys!! LOVED it!!I revered every second of the movie & kudos to the two film-makers -EXCELLENT job – you must have had amazing patience and tenacity – WOW! Long live the gorgeous sycamore tree and it’s figs!!
    Keep up the great work PBS! I am so proud to be a Kenyan and I value my homeland even more by watching a show like this!!

  • Amy V

    This was an AMAZING documentary. The camera work, almost microscopic, was incredible. So beautiful! Thanks for this beautiful illustration of how nature is so interdependent. The sooner mankind realizes that we NEED one another and the Earth and all of its creatures, the sooner we will wake up and preserve our beautiful home.

  • Hope Long Weldon

    I saw this presentation, I could not determined if it was a documentary or a movie. I was knocked off my feet by the ecosystem that used a fig tree to connect countries and continents, as well as animals to insects. I was almost drawn to moments that I forgot to breeze. I have had the privileged to view the production twice and I am just waiting for my next experience. I am a classroom teacher, we have ETV public broadcasting that’s piped into our classroom. Is it feasible to purhcase the cd for classroom use. I can use this audio/dvd video to discuss the multiple ways the fig seeds are transported from one continent to another, decribe relationships that are initially developed for shared survival of the fittest, and evetually creates a dialog for quenching another threast , identify how communication is developed/developing language compare and contrast; the list goes on and on for the educational and entertaining purposes. Thank you so much for such a beautiful experience. Hope Long Weldon/LD Teacher

  • Pia Lord

    I have noticed also that the fig tree needs a source of water. For ours the proximity to the Chesapeake Bay makes such a difference in the production and quality of the figs. Clearly fig trees are so beneficial to humans in terms of food value/nutritional value we should never remove them and possibly plant more in strategic locations around the world to reduce starvation, increase health and provide for commerce on any level-barter through commercial enterprise.

  • Lena Wright

    The “Queen of Trees” is a magnificant tree and no one should hurt her muscular body for a little honey. The people of Kenya should protest against this action and allow this valuable nutritrious tree longevity.

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