Standing beneath the unmistakable Moreton Bay Fig Tree with its powerful buttresses and long dangling aerial roots creates a sense of awe and wonder. In summertime when the spreading tree shelters us from the onslaught of the elements we raise our admiration of the tree to icon status. To add to this the Moreton Bay Fig is now the star of the film “The Tree” and the subject of the latest Australian homeopathic medical research.
THE MORETON BAY FIG TREE
Trunk of Moreton Bay Fig Tree
The Moreton Bay Fig Tree recently became a candidate for investigation of its medicinal properties and the subject of the latest Australian homeopathic medical research. The final stage of this work is now occurring where verification from clinical use is being sought from homeopaths around the world. Coincidentally, cinema goers will recognize the Moreton Bay Fig from the celebrated Australian movie, ‘The Tree’ shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. The characteristic nature of the MBF tree with it’s powerful branches and immense roots, alongside it’s millennial-old history of indigenous use, drew the attention of a homeopathic research team. They surmised that the tree would yield a useful remedy. Their hypothesis was followed by years of work to scientifically evaluate and carefully document their findings through a trial. This trial led by Alastair Gray, an Australian homeopath, was completed in 2005.
To completely build up an understanding of Moreton Bay Fig Tree for use as a homeopathic medicine many issues have been taken into account: the history of its prior indigenous use; the Doctrine of Signatures; the nature of the tree; a study of other fig tree homeopathic remedies in the same mulberry family; the Homeopathic trial; and systematic clinical verification.
Australian Aborigines found a myriad of uses for the Moreton Bay Fig Tree (Ficus macrophylla) long before European settlement. The most obvious use is the year-round fruit, the figs, which continually drop to the ground and fill the air with a distinctive fermenting aroma. They were eaten when ripe and soft, or made into a paste. Although not as palatable as the figs we are used to buying they are edible and do contain some potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron.
Next, the inner bark or roots were used to make a sturdy cloth and cord for bags as well as woven fishing nets. Also the branches as well as the bark were used to make waterproof dug-out canoes. Lastly, the milky sap, which exudes when the tree is cut was prepared as a medicine to treat infections and to dress small wounds. Paradoxically, it is found to be an irritant if it comes in direct contact with the skin.
Fruit of fig tree
Doctrine of Signatures
From ancient times the philosophy called the Doctrine of Signatures has been used to gather clues about medicinal substances. According to the doctrine, a study of the nature of a tree will reveal indications for its use as a medicine. By careful observation of some aspect of its form, colour, requirements, place of growing or role in our culture we can gain information. The immediate signature of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree in its current environment suggests protection from the fierceness of the Australian summer: strength and surviving.
Alstonville Fig Tree
The Australian summer
During summer, the earth’s orbit brings Australia closer to the sun than Europe during its summer, and at the same time we are closer to the much-talked-about depleted Antarctic ozone layer. Therefore the ultraviolet radiation levels are higher here than in Europe. As a result Australian doctors have over 1 million patient consultations per year for skin complaints caused by the sun. Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, nearly four times the rates in the US and the UKi. It’s indisputable – the sun in our part of the world is hostile and we need strategies to survive.
The nature of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree
The Moreton Bay Fig Tree unashamedly leads a double life. It can take two forms, spreading itself as a majestic tree or letting the other side of its nature develop by living as a strangling vine. The form it takes depends entirely upon where the germinating seed lands. If the seed lands in the trunk of another tree where humus accumulates then it will spread its roots down the trunk eventually strangling and killing the host. If the seed lands on the ground it flourishes and grows unhindered into a magnificent tree.
Moreton Bay Fig Trees are native to Eastern Australia. They can reach a height of 40 m (approx. 130 ft) and have large buttress roots, sometimes as tall as a man. The giant has been found to grow to 60m (approx. 200 ft) in the wild. The tree is a member of the mulberry family. In the United States, it has long been cultivated in California, Hawaii and Florida.
Strangler figs start life as an epiphyte, or air plant, germinating high above the soil of the forest floor. The dangling roots slowly make their way towards the soil and then the fig ceases to be an epiphyte and takes on a more familiar lifestyle with roots in the soil. The ability to grow as an epiphyte, far from the normal community below, far from the regular supply of water and minerals available in the soil, means that the fig tree can survive in the most inhospitable places on exposed rocky hill tops or cliff faces. Epiphytes are not parasitic; they are able to live on accumulated leaf-litter, airborne moisture, and dust particles.
Like other trees, this one bleeds and there are characteristic tear streaks of gum like material on the trunks of the Morton Bay Fig. The bark of the tree has been described as greyish brown. In places where the bark is strongly exposed to the sun there are various blemishes, numerous blister type marks and small scales scattered all over it.
Moreton Bay Figs sometimes start life as a pot plant and if later planted in the garden their invasive roots will crack water pipes and damage foundations. Because of this the drought-resistant Moreton Bay Figs belong in public parks and recreation areas. They are known and loved in Australia for the amount of protective shade their glossy leaves provide against the harsh summer sun. The branches are only just out of reach of the human hand, shooting out parallel to the ground in all directions, and the enormous canopy covers a distance of up to half a football field.
Giant Root of Fig Tree
Other fig remedies – Banyan Tree
In homeopathy, there are two other fig tree remedies namely the Banyan Tree and the Bodhi Tree, which are also members of the diverse mulberry family. The Banyan, is a large Indian tree which has many aerial roots growing down from the branches into the soil, forming prop roots. When the tree becomes older, the original trunk dies off, and the tree separates into sections, the props becoming separate trunks for the individual sections. A famous Banyan in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) has a main trunk more than 12 m (40 ft) in circumference; it has 230 prop roots 1.8 to 3 m (6 to 10 ft) around, and more than 3,000 smaller trunks. Some Banyans have a canopy providing shade for entire villages. As a homeopathic remedy it is called Ficus indica and is used to treat respiratory disorders.
Buddha is said to have received his Enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi Tree. According to legend the sacred Bodhi Tree was planted in the 3rd century BC. Each year thousands of pilgrims pay homage to it, in the ruins of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The homeopathic remedy Ficus religiosa is made from this tree and is used for treatment of restless legs, weakness, numbness, cramps and pains in the lower half of the body described as a “wooden feeling.”
The Homeopathic Pathogenetic Trial (HPT)
The purpose of the HPT was to test Ficus macrophylla, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree remedy. This testing was conducted at a non-toxic level and created information for inclusion in homeopathic reference books. The HPT is unique to homeopathy and was in days-gone-by called a ‘proving’.
HPT’s have certain aspects common to Phase 1 trials for new pharmaceutical products as they are conducted on volunteers, but also there are important differences. The homeopathic doses used are too small to risk serious adverse effects and the data collected is mostly qualitative including sensations and feelings. Phase 1 trials intend, predominantly, to gather pharmacological data. The HPT is not designed to ‘prove’ that homeopathy works; but more to identify the effects of substances. The data is then submitted to the rigorous process of systematic clinical verification, as suggested by the famous homeopath Hering more than 100 years ago.
Themes and symptoms of the Moreton Bay Fig Tree remedy
The volunteers who took part in the Ficus macrophylla Homeopathic Pathogenetic Trial (HPT) were blinded from what the trial substance was. This ‘blinding’ is part of the methodology of any HPT. It is therefore of great interest once the information of the HPT has been collated, to discover if there is any link with prior indigenous use or any similarity with the doctrine of signatures.
Several themes, symptoms and indications for use, arose from the trial.
- Shelter, compassion, mothering, protection and connection with children were recurrent themes. The vast canopy is known and loved in Australia for the amount of shade provided in summer. All volunteers had experiences of nurturing and of being obsessed with compassion for the treatment of sick people. A male volunteer directed his energy to maternal nurturing, protective behavior and experienced a perception of increased strength in the veins of the arm, curiously not in the muscles. The long dangling roots have an appearance similar to varicose veins.
- Acting very impatient and short tempered, “I feel so agitated towards everyone”.
- Many volunteers felt scattered, spacey and ungrounded. “As if there was air in my head” and “I am up there above my body”. The tree starts life as an epiphyte far from the ground.
- Feeling much worse between two and two thirty in the afternoon. The sun is at its hottest at this time, bearing out the protective theme of the remedy.
- There were sensations that the right side of the body is quite different to the left side with a feeling of being almost split down the middle. A heavier sensation was felt on the right side of the body. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree is capable of growing as a majestic tree or strangler vine. It is a close cousin to the Banyan tree, which separates into sections.
- Skin symptoms included warts, roughness and extreme dryness, sometimes so severe that the skin cracked under the toes. The bark of the tree has various blemishes, blister type marks and small scales scattered over it. Australian aborigines used the milky sap to treat skin infections and to dress small wounds.
- Many painful complaints were felt in the back and legs along with heaviness, stiffness and tingling. Cracking occurred in the joints and ankles. There was numbness and aching in the hollow of the foot and volunteers noted an increased tendency to sprain their ankles. The roots of the tree have such a huge weight to hold up and stabilize that they become buttresses.
With information collated from all our sources, the picture of a person who would benefit from the remedy now emerges.
- The woman who survives and does well at the job of protecting and mothering the family but suffers herself.
- Parents who live “on the edge of the cliff” and survive with little nurturing themselves. Sometimes they obsessively overdo the job of parenting by spreading out their area of compassion. They may be told they are “strangling” their loved ones with over-caring.
- Someone who suffers with back complaints from holding up the weight of their career and family.
- The person who becomes irritable, scattered and ungrounded from trying to do too much.
- People on their feet all day who develop tingling, aching varicose veins, and whose legs feel heavy especially around 2pm in the afternoon.
Another use may be for sun-damaged skin such as solar keratosis. In our country of the annual skin-check, it seems a wise perception that an Australian substance would be a most useful medicine for a health problem which is characteristically Australian. It is suggested that a 6x strength of Ficus macrophylla may be prescribed as a remedy for sun damaged skin. These suggestions mean that more research is imperative.
With each new homeopathic remedy an adventure begins. The picture of Ficus macrophylla emerges. The next exciting part of this research and study of a new medicine is observing its clinical use and allowing time for verification to come from homeopathic practitioners around the world.
Shelter, compassion, mothering, protection and connection with children. The exploration of this new medicine has begun.
Photographs of the Moreton Bay Fig tree are by photographer Brian Alexander.
Note: Prescribing this remedy requires careful differentiation from other similar remedies by a trained professional.
Dantas F Fisher P Walach H Wieland F Rastogi D Teixeira H Koster D Jansen J Eizayaga J Alvarez M Marim M Belon P Weckx L. (2007) A systematic review of the quality of homeopathic pathogenetic trials published from 1945 to 1995. Homeopathy. 96: 4-16.