Open Access

An ethnobotanical study of the less known wild edible figs (genus Ficus) native to Xishuangbanna, Southwest China

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine201410:68

https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-10-68

Received: 8 July 2014

Accepted: 17 September 2014

Published: 24 September 2014

Abstract

Background

The genus Ficus, collectively known as figs, is a key component of tropical forests and is well known for its ethnobotanical importance. In recent decades an increasing number of studies have shown the indigenous knowledge about wild edible Ficus species and their culinary or medicinal value. However, rather little is known about the role of these species in rural livelihoods, because of both species and cultural diversity.

Methods

In this study we 1) collected the species and ethnic names of wild edible Ficus exploited by four cultural groups in Xishuangbanna, Southwest China, and 2) recorded the collection activities and modes of consumption through semi-structured interviews, 3) investigated the resource management by a statistical survey of their field distribution and cultivation, and 4) compared and estimated the usage intensities by the grading method.

Results

The young leaves, leaf buds and young or ripe syconia of 13 Ficus species or varieties are traditionally consumed. All the species had fixed and usually food-related ethnic names. All four cultural groups are experienced in the collection and use of edible Ficus species as vegetables, fruits or beverages, with the surplus sold for cash income. Different cultural groups use the Ficus species at different intensities because of differences in availability, forest dependency and cultural factors. Both the mountain and basin villagers make an effort to realize sustainable collection and meet their own and market needs by resource management in situ or cultivation.

Conclusions

In comparison with reports from other parts of the world, ethnic groups in Xishuangbanna exploited more edible Ficus species for young leaves or leaf buds. Most of the edible species undergo a gradient of management intensities following a gradient of manipulation from simple field gathering to ex situ cultivation. This study contributes to our understanding of the origins and diffusion of the knowledge of perception, application and managing a group of particular plant species, and how the local culture, economic and geographical factors influence the process.

Keywords

Ficus Ethnobotany Management Fruit Vegetables Xishuangbanna

Background

The genus Ficus consists of over 800 species of trees, shrubs, vines and epiphytes in the family Moraceae, which have a wide distribution and multiple uses in most tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. They are traditionally used as medicine or food plants, ornamental trees, religious plants, lacca hosts, fodder, fuel wood, hedges or enclosures. The importance of Ficus as a global spiritual and material resource for humans has been well-documented [1, 2].

Some Ficus species are reported to be among the oldest human food sources. Fossil evidence suggests that the common fig (Ficus carica L.) has been cultivated for over 11,000 years, possibly predating cereal grains [3], and thousands of cultivars of this species have been developed worldwide. The biblical sycamore fig (F. sycomorus L.) is another old human food source and one of the largest fruit producers. It was identified as a key food source for Pliocene hominids along the Baragoi River in Nachola and Baragoi, in northern Kenya [4]. Nowadays the most well-known species is F. carica, which produces the commercial common fig (fig is also the general name of the “fruit” of the genus). Specifically, the common fig is the syconium of F. carica var. domestica, which is functionally a female individual of F. carica. However, it was only in recent decades that it became known how many more culinary uses the genus Ficus can provide beyond their nutritious raw syconia. A growing number of studies have noted the significance of the edible Ficus species as vegetables [59], for tea or beverage preparation [1012], for jelly and jam production [13] or for medicinal purposes [1417].

Our previous ethnobotanical survey conducted in southwest Yunnan, China, found that Ficus was the most frequently consumed genus (with 8 species) of the 220 plant genera which contain species used as wild vegetables [6]. Ficus was also the most frequently used genus (7 species) among the 82 genera containing wild fruits in the region [18]. Specialized studies of these wild edible Ficus species are needed to clarify their ethnobotany, including vernacular names, modes of consumption, availability and management, and possible multiple uses. Since most of the species identified in these surveys are native to the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, a cultural and biodiversity hotspot in southwest Yunnan, China, a research project was initiated to estimate the current and historic usage of edible Ficus species in Xishuangbanna, not only for their economic benefits, but also for their cultural richness and their roles in the long history of rural livelihoods.

Methods

Study area

Xishuangbanna (XSBN) is in the south of Yunnan province, southwest China, bordering Myanmar and Laos. It has an area of almost 20,000 km2 and is biogeographically located at the transitional zone with tropical Southeast Asia to the South, subtropical East Asia to the north, the Sino-Japanese floristic region to the east and the Sino-Himalayan floristic region to the west [19]. There are three seasons: a cool and foggy winter (November–February), a warm and dry ‘summer’ (March–April), and a warm and wet monsoon season (May–October). The region possesses an exceptionally diverse flora and 13 indigenous cultural groups have well-established ethnobotanical knowledge. Ficus is the most species-rich genus in the region [19], with 69 species, subspecies or varieties native to the area [20]. Because of their close relationship with natural forests, all the native culture groups in XSBN have developed knowledge systems related to the use and conservation of natural resources. Wild collection is traditionally an important subsistence activity. Four ethnic villages near natural reserves inhabited by Dai, Hani, Jinuo and Yao people were selected as sample sites (Table 1). The exact locations of the sample sites are withheld to protect the anonymity of the interviewees.). For each village, more than 95% of the villagers are indigenous. Relevant local markets were also visited.
Table 1

Information on the ethnic villages sampled in Xishuangbanna, SW China

Village

Altitude

Culture group

Population

Main income sources

Bakaxiaozhai

650 m

Jinuo

280

Rubber trees, wild collection

Dazhai

900 m

Yao

989

Cash crops (bean and corn), livestock, wild collection and hunting

Manlun

570 m

Dai

520

Rubber trees, farmland rent, part – time jobs

Nanbang

910 m

Hani

263

Cash crops (Amomum villosum, banana, etc.), livestock, wild collection and hunting

Ethnobotanical data collection

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10–27 key informants in each village in March–October 2012, for details about the wild edible Ficus species, including their local nomenclatures, collection techniques and modes of consumption. The number of interviewees selected in each village mainly depended on the integrity and uniformity of information we obtained. Only those who could give details independently and according to their own experience, or could give a practical demonstration, were counted as key informants. Interviewees were first shown a group of sample species (photographs or fresh specimens) that were expected to be used. Species mentioned by informants that were not included in the samples were given special attention as new records. The Yao villagers living in Dazhai are monolingual, with only the village school students and staff able to speak Mandarin, so our interviews were conducted in the school with Yao students and teachers. Dai, Hani and Jinuo interviews were conducted in the villagers’ homes, farming plots or collection sites using Mandarin or their own language, with the help of local field assistants.

Field investigations were designed to assess the availability of edible fig resources, including their field distribution and home cultivation. Since the mountain villages (Bakaxiaozhai, Dazhai and Nanbang) do not have private homegardens, they consume only wild Ficus. We chose Nanbang as a representative mountain village to assess the distribution of the fig individuals they use. Six key informants were asked to guide field travel in the area surrounding their village in March 2012. Ficus individuals in dietary use and within one-hour walking distance (along twisting narrow footpaths in five directions) from the village site were recorded, including their species names, the numbers of plants, and their diameters at breast height (DBH). We chose “one-hour walking distance” to include most plots where the daily collection activities happen and the distance was accessible for all of our local guides. The Dai, who settle in valleys, basins or on river banks at lower elevations, are the major culture group in XSBN and have developed diverse homegardens. Most Ficus parts they eat come from these or from around their courtyards. We visited 107 households in Manlun village in May–June 2012 to collect data regarding the species, numbers of plants, and DBH of all edible Ficus species cultivated.

Observations of trading in Ficus products were conducted in three local markets related to the selected villages. They are the farm products market of 1) Menglun township, 2.2 km to Manlun and 5.7 km to Bakaxiaozhai, 2) Mengla township, 31 km to Nanbang, and 3) Jinghong city, which assemble farm products and wild collections from multiple ethnic groups and wide areas. All the villages can access their markets by motor vehicles. We selected Menglun market for long-term (November 2013 to April 2014) monitoring to collect basic data (species, price, sources, etc.) and determine the amounts sold and peak season, because the market has the most diverse Ficus products and modest size. We did market survey in Mengla and Jinghong during peak season to assess the universality of the trading activities. Only part of the result is shown in this study. More details on the amounts sold and their sources will be included in another publication because it needed additional investigations.

Data analysis

Based on the usage intensity classification for wild fruits of Chen et al. [18], we defined five levels of usage intensity according to our work described above. The five levels are coded as 1) , no usage record; 2) +, consumed occasionally or just by children and hunters; 3) + +, frequently consumed and often gathered regularly during harvest season; 4) + + +, frequently consumed and the surplus may be sold in the local market or processed for out-of-season use, sources protected; 5) + + + +, cultivated in homegardens for consumption and sale.

All voucher specimens collected in our field work were deposited in the herbarium of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (HITBC), Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Results

Edible species and their ethnic nomenclature

Thirteen edible Ficus species or varieties and their corresponding local names were recorded. For F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia and F. vasculosa, the details were collected from the local markets. For the other 11 species, information was obtained by interviews of key informants in the four sample villages. The pronunciations of the Mandarin and ethnic names were recorded as accurately as possible in the Chinese phonetic alphabet (Table 2).
Table 2

Wild edible Ficus species used by each ethnic group and their names

SpeciesA

Mandarin nameB

Ethnic nameC

Specimen number

Dai

Hani

Jinuo

Yao

F. altissima Bl.

Da qing shu (lofty tree)

——

niza nihao

paleng*, palu*

——

S120315003

F. auriculata Lour. (F. roxburghii Wall.)

Xiang er rong, Mu gua rong (elephant ear fig or papaya fig)

pàk wā

xibu(bu) ma

sipu

nuoge biu

S140227022

F. callosa Willd.

Ying pi rong (hard skin fig)

pàk dédá

——

paleng

——

S130911018

F. hirta Vahl.

Wu zhi mao tao, Cu ye rong (five – finger hairy fig or rough leaf fig)

——

acalama axi

Wamo dousou

bulana biu

S121003006

F. maclellandii King var. Rhododendrifolia Corner

Du juan ye rong (azalea leaf fig)

pàk yī

——

——

——

S140415024

F. oligodon Miq.

Ping guo rong (apple fig)

pàk wā

xibu qi

sipu

nuoge zam biu

S140404023

F. racemosa L. (F. glomerata Roxb.)

Ju guo rong, Ma lang guo (Cluster fig)

pàk dē

tang bule

guole, mulu se*

——

S140417026

F. semicordata B.-H. ex Sm.

Ji su guo (chicken crop fig)

mūnā

xigugu ma

sigeiyao

mule lum biu

S121028007

F. semicordata var. montana Amatya

Ji su guo (Small fruit variety of chicken crop fig)

mūnā

xigu misi

sigeiyaogeiyao mi

mule zam biu

S120313002

F. tikoua Bur.

Di ban teng, Di shi liu (ground pomegranate)

——

——

——

muduoniang

S121029009

F. vasculosa Wall. ex Miq.

Tu mai rong, Shan tian cai (sweet mountain greens)

pàk dé gái

——

——

——

S120518004

F. virens Ait.

Lv huang ge shu, Suan bao shu (sour buds tree)

pàk yī

niza bao

neme adao

gelong den

S131201021

F. virens Ait. var. sublanceolata (Miq.) Corner

Huang ge shu, Suan bao shu (sour buds tree)

pàk yī

——

neme adao

——

S130901016

ABotanical names in brackets are frequently seen synonyms.

BName in brackets is English equivalent of the Mandarin name.

C“——” means that the species is not reported as edible by the ethnic group.

*Quote according to Wang and Long [21].

In the Dai language, names of wild plants used as vegetables are often preceded by “pàk”. The words “liāng” (reddish), “xiū” (green), “háo” (white), “núi” (smaller) and “lōng” (bigger) are often added to discriminate the edible parts of similar fig plants. Some Ficus forms distinguished by local people are apparently not yet recognized taxonomically. Sometimes, the flavor is reflected in the plant name. For example, the Dai word for chicken, “gái.” is used in the Dai name for F. vasculosa, describing the chicken-soup like taste of the young leaves used in vegetable soup.

In the Hani language, “xibu” refers to the fig fruits borne in clusters on the trunk or thick leafless branches, while “xigu” refers to fruits borne in long and slender leafless braches from the trunk and near the ground. The words “ha” (bitter, here means inedible male figs), “ma” (bigger) and “qi” or “misi” (smaller) are often added after the formal name. The Hani word “niza” means a guest who stayed too long and can’t be driven away, and is used for strangling fig trees! Typical strangler species, such as F. virens, are disliked by the Hani even though they know the leaf buds are edible.

In the Jinuo language, “neme” refers to leaf buds with a sour taste and “adao” is the common name for leaves. In the Yao language, “nuoge” is a common name for edible plants with white latex. The words “lumu” and “zamu” refer to “bigger” and “smaller” fig fruits. “Biu” is a common name for edible fruits, and “den” means young leaves or leaf buds.

Collection and form of consumption

All four culture groups use the young or ripe female figs and young leaves or leaf buds of multiple Ficus species as fruits, beverages or vegetables, with only minor differences in modes of consumption. Surplus young female figs of F. auriculata and young leaves or buds of six species are sold for cash income in local markets (Figure 1). Generally, the appropriate harvest season for young leaves or buds is late winter to summer and for fruits the monsoon season (Table 3), but there are exceptions to this timing under both natural conditions and with human intervention, such as frequent pruning to prolong the crop life of young leaves or buds.
Figure 1

Some examples of Ficus vegetables sold in local markets in Xishuangbanna, SW China. From left to right: young leaves of F. auriculata, F. racemosa and F. callosa tied using bamboo sliver (a); Young leaves of F. vasculosa wrapped in leaf slices of genus Musa L. (b); Piles of red and green leaf buds of F. virens on the leaves of genus Musa L. (c).

Table 3

The growth habit, habitat, harvest season and consumption form of the Ficus found in the ethnic diet in Xishuangbanna, SW China

SpeciesA

Growth habit (M/D)B

Habitat

Intensive harvest period

Edible parts

Mode of consumptionC

FAL

Large trees (M)

Insides and margins of the thick forest in valleys or mountains, or grow as individuals in plains

February – March

Leaf buds

Vegetables boiled with pork ribs (water blanching before cook, Hani), the stipules act as sour taste ingredients

FAU

Small trees (D)

Tropical or subtropical forests in moist valleys, or surroundings of farmland and village

January – April (young leaves), March – July (ripe female figs)

Young or ripe female figs, young leaves

Ripe figs are eaten raw or for making jelly beverage; Young figs are used as salad with condiments (Dai and Jinuo); Young leaves are used as vegetables boiled with spareribs (water blanching or rubbing with salt before cook); Young figs and young leaves are sold for cash income

FCA

Large trees (M)

Forests in basins or valleys in lower mountains

January – May

Young leaves

Vegetables cooked with tomato (the red kind need water blanching before cook, Dai, Jinuo); sold for cash income

FHI

Shrubs or small trees (D)

Slopes or margins of mountain forests or open fields near villages

August – October

Ripe female figs

Child snacks (Hani, Jinuo and Yao)

FMR

trees (M)

Plains or thin forests along river and stream sides

February – April

Leaf buds

Fresh vegetables, or store up after quickly baked and dried for use out of season (Dai); Being sold for cash income

FOL

Small trees (D)

Forests in higher mountainous areas,

(Similar to FAU)

Ripe female figs, young leaves

Ripe figs are eaten raw or for making jelly beverage; Young leaves are used as vegetables boiled with spareribs (water blanching or rubbing with salt before cook); Young leaves are sold for cash income

FRA

Large trees (M)

Thin forests along river and stream sides, or valleys of lower mountains

March – May

Young leaves

As salad with condiments or as vegetables cooked with green moss (Dai, Hani, Jinuo)

FSE

Small trees (D)

Forest edge or thin forests in valleys, beside rivers and roads

Irregular (2 – 3 crops per year)

Ripe female figs

Ripe figs are eaten raw

FSM

Small trees (D)

Forest edge or road side

Irregular (3 crops per year)

Ripe female figs

Ripe figs are eaten raw

FTI

Prostrate woody vines (D)

Slopes of limestone mountain and grass land at higher elevations

June – September (ripe female figs)

Ripe female figs; whole plant

Ripe female figs are eaten raw; Whole plant is used for tea preparation (Yao)

FVA

Trees (M)

Seasonal rain forests at lower elevations

January – June

Young leaves

Soup vegetables boiled with other wild greens or fried vegetables (Dai, Hani); Sold for cash income

FVI

Large trees (M)

Forests in valleys or lower mountains

January – April

Leaf buds

As salad with condiments (Yao) or as vegetables boiled with pig trotter, the stipules give a sour taste; Being sold for cash income

FVS

Large trees (M)

Forests in valleys or lower mountains, or growing as individuals in plains

January – April

Leaf buds

Vegetables boiled with pig trotter, the stipules give a sour taste (Dai)

AFAL, F. altissima; FAU, F. auriculata; FCA, F. callosa; FHI, F. hirta; FMR, F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia; FOL, F. oligodon; FRA, F. racemosa; FSE, F. semicordata; FSM, F. semicordata var. montana; FTI, F. tikoua; FVA, F. vasculosa; FVI, F. virens; FVS, F. virens var. sublanceolata.

BD, Dioecious; M, Monoecious.

CThe consumption modes without brackets indication mean they are common to all four ethnic groups in this study.

Resource management

Mountain villagers in Nanbang retain and protect the wild edible Ficus trees growing around the village in situ, and sometimes transplant individuals away from new farmland or road construction sites. Seventy four individuals of 7 species or varieties growing within one-hour walking distance from the village were recorded, mostly with a DBH of 0.10-0.15 m (Figure 2a). The villagers increase the production of young leaves and leaf buds by pruning during or out of the harvest season.
Figure 2

The number and diameter at breast height (DBH) of wild edible Ficus individuals around Nanbang (a); The number and DBH of the edible Ficus individuals kept by households in Manlun (b). FAL, F. altissima; FAU, F. auriculata; FHI, F. hirta; FOL, F. oligodon; FRA, F. racemosa; FSE, F. semicordata; FSM, F. semicordata var. montana; FVI, F. virens; FVS, F. virens var. sublanceolata.

In the basin village of Manlun, 4 edible Ficus species and 1 variety were cultivated and 70 households (65% of the total) had them. The trees were grown in kitchen gardens or in and surrounding the home yard (Figure 3b, c, d). They were grown from branch cuttings or from seedlings transplanted from nature, except that most F. racemosa and a few F. virens individuals grew spontaneously from seed. The number of Ficus individuals owned by each household range from 1 to 9 (Table 4). Most are young trees and their DBH is less than 0.1 m (Figure 2b). The other two cultivated species, F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia and F. vasculosa, were not found in Manlun but in two other Dai villages according to the people who sold them in the market. Field surveys showed that F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia was planted as individuals by some households (Figure 3a), while F. vasculosa was planted in groups of small trees that can be managed and picked like tea (see lower part of the photo in personal cover page), so they are also known as “tea-leaf vegetables”.
Figure 3

Some examples of edible Ficus species cultivated by the Dai people in Xishuangbanna, SW China. F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia cultivated in kitchen garden (a); F. auriculata cultivated in homegarden (b); F. virens planted around the courtyard (c); Three individuals of F. callosa planted in the courtyard (d). (Marked with black arrows).

Table 4

The number and location of edible Ficus species kept by households in Manlun village in Xishuangbanna, SW China

Species

Total number of plants

LocationA

Percent of households with each speciesB

Number of plants kept by each household

IC

SC

KG

Average

Maximum

F. auriculata

11

8

0

3

15.7%

1.0

1

F. callosa

39

17

1

21

31.4%

1.8

4

F. racemosa

17

5

7

5

21.4%

1.1

2

F. virens

98

49

11

38

82.9%

1.7

9

F. virens var. sublanceolata.

7

0

0

7

5.7%

1.8

4

AIC, in courtyard; SC, surrouding courtyard; KG, in kitchen garden.

BA total of 70 households were recorded keeping edible Ficus species.

Comparative evaluation of the usage intensities and preference

Among the 13 edible Ficus, five species (F. auriculata, F. oligodon, F. semicordata, F. semicordata var. montana and F. virens) are common to all four culture groups. Only two of these (F. auriculata and F. virens), however, are cultivated for home and commercial use, and reached the highest usage intensities (+ + + +). The other four “+ + + +” species (F. callosa, F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia, F. vasculosa and F. virens var. sublanceolata) are mainly used by Dai people (Table 5).
Table 5

Comparison of the usage intensities of each edible Ficus species among different culture groups

Culture groups

Species *

FAL

FAU

FCA

FHI

FMR

FOL

FRA

FSE

FSM

FTI

FVA

FVI

FVS

Dai

+ + + +

+ + + +

+ + + +

+ + +

+ ++

+ +

+

+ + + +

+ + + +

+ + + +

Hani

+

+ + +

+

+ +

+

+ +

+ +

+

Jinuo

+ + +

+ + +

+

+ + +

+

+ +

+ +

+ + +

+ + +

Yao

+ +

+

+ +

+

+

+ +

+

+

* –, no usage record; +, consumed occasionally or just by children and hunters; + +, frequently consumed and often gathered regularly during harvest season; + + +, frequently consumed and the surplus amount may be sold in the local market or processed for out-of-season use, the resources are protected intentionally; + + + +, introduced or cultivated in homegarden for the convenience of daily use and commercial purpose. FAL, F. altissima; FAU, F. auriculata; FCA, F. callosa; FHI, F. hirta; FMR, F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia; FOL, F. oligodon; FRA, F. racemosa; FSE, F. semicordata; FSM, F. semicordata var. montana; FTI, F. tikoua; FVA, F. vasculosa; FVI, F. virens; FVS, F. virens var. sublanceolata.

Discussion

Comparison of the wild edible Ficusspecies uses among the four culture groups

The Dai, Hani, Jinuo and Yao represent four distinctly different cultural groups with different languages in XSBN. All four groups have accumulated extensive knowledge on using the female fruits (For dioecious fig taxa, only the female fruits are edible, they are seed producers and are larger in size, rich in nutrient and have a pleasant taste, while the male fruits function in breeding pollinator wasps are poor in nutrient and not palatable. For monoecious fig taxa, their fruits are the same and avoided by people because small size, poor taste and the presence of wasps), young leaves or leaf buds of Ficus species as food resources. The common consumed species across the four groups are F. auriculata, F. oligodon, F. semicordata, F. semicordata var. montana and F. virens. The wide consumption and sustained marketing of these species show that they are widely accepted food resources rather than a narrow cultural preference. All the species had fixed and usually food-related ethnic names, which indicates the long history of indigenous consumption.

Different cultural groups use the wild edible Ficus species to different extents, depending on their availability, the group’s dependence on forest resources, and cultural factors. Generally, the Dai people use them at the highest intensity because (i) they have been permanent inhabitants in XSBN for centuries, and have established homegardens for small-scale wild food or medicinal plant cultivation or domestication, and (ii) they live in basins and have better access to markets. The other three mountain culture groups have more recently established permanent living spaces in the region and do not have a culture of homegarden cultivation, depending more on forest collection. Our data show that the Hani people in Nanbang prefer fruits of F. auriculata and F. oligodon (“Xibu”). One of their orally transmitted legends tells that the first Hani people were born in a “Xibu” and survived by sucking the “milk” in it (the milky latex that characterizes figs). In addition, their ethnic epic records that “Xibu” is one of the first edible fruit plants they discovered in the forest during hunting activities. The villagers do not like strangling figs, such as F. alltissima and F. virens, since they often encounter huge strangling figs in the forest which have killed their host trees, and believe this is an omen of disaster. They therefore remove most of spontaneous seedlings around the village.

The significance of the cultivation and commercialization of the wild edible Ficusspecies

The possibility of a wild plant resource continuing to meet both subsistence and market demands largely depends upon sustainable harvest by appropriate management, and the domestication of wild resources is crucial for resource management [22]. Domestication of common fig is thought to have started in the Mediterranean region in Early Neolithic period [3] and then spread worldwide. In XSBN, the Hani, Jinuo and Yao protect wild edible Ficus species while the Dai cultivate them. Except for the species traditionally cultivated in or around courtyards for ornamental and consumption purpose (such as F. auriculata), the cultivation of most Ficus species was triggered by the expansion of rubber plantations and resulting sharp decline in wild resource accessibility since the early 1980s. The indigenous villagers prefer to plant these species for their wide adaptability, high productivity, easy management and pleasant palatability. Ficus species are cultivated as tree fodder in many parts of the Himalaya region, with F. auriculata the most widely used species. Its fodder quality is far superior to paddy straw [23]. In the Bamileke region of Cameroon, Ficus species are propagated by pole cuttings and are an important part of agrarian system management [24]. These examples show that wild Ficus species undergo a gradient of management intensities from simple gathering, to nonselective incipient management, selective incipient management and occasionally ex situ cultivation [25]. But whether or not the incipient domestication has occurred is unknown.

The commercialization of wild edible Ficus species in XSBN is an important source of cash income for indigenous villagers. The leaves, buds and fruits of several Ficus species are sold in local markets and the whole plants are sold as ornamental trees. In other regions, however, only in north and central Vietnam are the near-ripe peeled or unpeeled fruits and young leaves of elephant figs (F. auriculata Lour. or F. oligodon Miq.) on sale in the market, and in Papua New Guinea the young leaves of dinner-plate figs (F. dammaropsis Diels.) are commonly sold in highland markets [8]. As Sawian et al. [26] reported, these products seldom appear to contribute a large share of a household’s total income generation, but are often important in bridging seasonal or other cash flow gaps.

The characteristics of the wild edible Ficusspecies in Xishuangbanna compared to those in other regions

The use of wild Ficus species as food is widespread in areas where the genus occurs, especially in the Himalaya region, which is floristically similar to our study area. For the 13 edible Ficus species in this study, the consumption of 6 species has either not been reported from elsewhere (F. altissima, F. callosa, F. maclellandii var. rhododendrifolia and F. vasculosa), or only from South China (F. tikoua and F. virens var. sublanceolata). Consumption of the other 7 species had been reported from Nepal [7, 27] and some were reported as eaten in India [9, 13, 28, 29], North Laos [18], Vietnam [8] or Pakistan [16, 30].

No other region appears to consume the diversity of wild Ficus species eaten in XSBN. Moreover, in the species consumed only in XSBN as well as those used most intensively, leaves and buds are the major parts consumed. These are concentrated sources of vitamin E, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), protein and minerals [31], and are apparently also rich sources of naturally occurred antioxidants [32], suggesting that they may make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of the consumers. Antioxidant potential has also been demonstrated in some other Ficus leaf samples [33].

Conclusions

Our studies of wild, managed in situ and cultivated edible Ficus populations showed that their edible products are highly appreciated by the indigenous people of Xishuangbanna. We found that in both mountain villages, which have forest access but are far from markets, and basin villages, which have market access but no forests, figs are used as vegetables, fruits or beverages. Moreover, people in both situations invest effort in promoting the use of these species through artificial management. The Dai people who live in basin villages cultivate preferred species in and around their kitchen gardens and courtyards, encouraging intensive usage, with the possibility of artificial selection of plants with preferred characteristics. Further studies should be conducted to determine if these species are or can be ongoing incipient domestication. Finally, this study of a small geographic area suggests that the genus Ficus represents a largely untapped source of potential food resources for tropical people.

Declarations

Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31400286) and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China (1zY213631271) for financial support. Professor Darong Yang identified the Ficus species and contributed valuable suggestions and encouragement. Professor Zhekun Zhou and Ping Zhang supported the research platform and gave instructive comments. Professor Richard Thomas Corlett and Dr. Pelin Kayaalp edited the English language thoroughly.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Key Laboratory of Economic Plants and Biotechnology, Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences
(2)
Key Laboratory of Tropical Plant Resources and Sustainable Use, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences

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© Shi et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014

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