george josef kamel, s.j. drawing of balete
Balete is the generic name for a number of species belonging to the Ficus genus. Ficus benjamina is the common balete trained as bonsai, trimmed to shape and used as landscape material. It is known in English as the strangling or straggling fig or in Visayan dalakit because of the plants ability to attach itself to various surfaces like old masonry and tree bark, which it then envelops in a maze of roots. This slowly destroys masonry and kills the host tree.
F. elastica is a huge tree, characterized by massive aerial roots. This is the banyan, mistakenly referred to as rubber tree or Indian rubber tree because it produces a sticky latex. F. elastica has large, leathery, shiny and veined leaves. Its terminal stipules are reddish. Able to survive in shade, saplings of F. elastica are used for decoration.
Sometimes called ivy F. pumila is a creeping variety of fig. It is a shrub that clings to walls because its short roots produce a stick substance. It is used to cover perimeter walls and concrete buildings. Left alone F. pumila can cover a building to the height of about four stories. When F. pumila matures it produces a large pear shaped fruit near the top. F. lyrata has fiddle shaped leaves, hence the English name fiddle-leaf fig and the Bahasa Indonesia cantik biola (beautiful violin). Ficus are distinguished by leaf shape or form. F. pseudopalma in Tagalog niyog-niyog looks like a palm tree. F. rotundifolia has roundish leaves, while F. triangularis has rounded triangular leaves. F. ulmifolia, locally known as isis, as the species name suggests has elm-like leaves. This plant’s rough surface and tough texture makes it suitable for polishing wood.
Ficus hardiness recommends it as an ornamental, hence, many cultivars have been developed including variegated types.
Ficus is also the stuff of legend. Perhaps the many aerial roots and the dark recesses they produce which characterize some species have suggested that these are dwelling spaces of unseen entities. Folk legend has it that dwendes live in large F. benjamina trees, and that the dark-skinned, tobacco-smoking giant, the kapre, uses it as a lounging chair. Historically, the ficus figures in the story of the Buddha. It was while meditating under the bodhi or peepul tree (F. religiosa L.) that prince Siddharta or Sakyamuni attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. F. religiosa has ovate or heart-shaped leaves terminating in a tapered tail-like tip. Because of its religious connections, F. religiosa figures in Asian folk craft, either as subject-matter of painting or design or as skeletonized leaves on which are painted folk scenes or religious stories.