Not everything needs to be fertilised in order to make fruiting bodies. Figs – at least the kind that we eat – are parthenocarpic, meaning they can product fruit without fertilisation.
If a plant has the right genetic structure, as with figs, then breeders can raise plants that do not need to be fertilised.
Some other plants that are raised to produce seeds, nuts, drupes, berries, or whatever without fertilisation are bananas, pineapples, cucumbers, tomatoes, oranges, grapes, kiwis, blackberries, and peppers.
Figs that are fertilised have a specific companion, the Fig wasp. And the story of the fertilisation is very different from the normal story of buzzing bees and insects..
Figs and their companion wasp have been around for a long time – 90 million years – with the two made for each other.
The flowers of the fig are encased in a bulb-like stem. A female wasp burrows into the flowers via a hole at the top of the stem. She carries with her the pollen she collected from another fig tree earlier in her life cycle. Once inside and in among the tightly bundled flowers, she lays her eggs there and then dies.
When the eggs hatch, they eat the flowers, grow to adulthood and mate. Then the wingless males burrow to the surface and die there. The females emerge via the escape routes the males have made, and fly off to pollinate other figs.
Now for the killer fact. That bulb-like system that encases the flowers – that’s the fig that we know and eat. Except as I said, the ones we normally eat are bred to produce figs without being fertilised.
It’s strange to think that the flowers of the fig never see the light of day. Their whole existence is inside the covering that we know as the skin of a fig.