The ficus tree dilemma

Known for their rapid growth, ficus trees provide ample shade and a sense of tropical lushness to built-up areas. However, their popularity comes with a caveat.

The recent unanimous decision (now reversed) by the Mosta local council to remove 12 ficus trees from the town centre has ignited a heated debate about the fate of these ubiquitous shade trees, which have graced Malta and Gozo’s urban landscape for decades.

While some argue for their removal due to their invasive root systems and potential damage to infrastructure, others lament the loss of these cherished symbols of Malta’s limited urban greenery which are also part and parcel of our memories and identity.

Ficus trees are known for their rapid growth, providing ample shade and a sense of tropical lushness to built-up areas. However, their popularity comes with a drawback.

What is a ficus tree?

The ficus genus boasts an impressive diversity of over 800 species, including the familiar fig tree and the pervasive rubber plant. These trees, shrubs, and vines are characterised by their leathery, glossy leaves that exhibit a captivating range of shapes and sizes, adding to the tree’s visual appeal.

Ficus trees reproduce quickly and easily, making them popular for rainforest restoration and as ornamental plant in homes, parks and other public spaces, and establishments in different parts of the world.

Ficus trees in the city centre of Marsala, Sicily

Why are ficus trees so common in urban spaces across the Maltese islands?

Due to their rapid growth rate and ability to mature quickly compared to other trees, ficus trees had become the preferred choice for planting in squares, along roads, and other urban spaces in Malta and Gozo. This rapid growth allowed the trees to swiftly enhance the aesthetic appeal of these spaces while providing a welcome respite from the Mediterranean sun.

Ficus trees at It-Tokk in Gozo’s capital, Rabat

What challenges do ficus trees pose?

Ficus trees, though prized for their beauty and shade, can present significant challenges due to their extensive root systems. These roots, capable of growing remarkably large and robust, can cause damage to property, create tripping hazards, and demand ongoing maintenance, posing concerns for homeowners, property managers, and even local governments. The root systems can exert immense pressure on underground infrastructure, including pipes, foundations, and pavements. This pressure can lead to cracks, breaks, and other damage, necessitating costly repairs. Because of these concerns, ficus trees have been entirely excluded from new public greening initiatives.

Damage on a pavement caused by ficus tree roots.

What provisions are set forth in tree protection regulations?

Although the ficus tree is deemed an alien species, in an effort to strike a balance, regulations mandate that the uprooting of ficus trees from public spaces or of any ficus tree over 50 years old, necessitates a permit from the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA).

When evaluating requests for ficus tree removal, the ERA considers several factors, including the presence of structural damage caused by roots, the fate of the trees (destruction or relocation), and the replacement of removed trees with other species.

How did past policies address the management of ficus trees?

Well before the establishment of the ERA or its predecessor, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA), complaints abounded regarding damage caused by ficus tree roots to roads, pavements, and private property throughout the country. These concerns often resulted in the removal and destruction of these trees, as exemplified by the eradication of ficus trees along the Fgura main road in the 1990s.

Ficus trees lined both sides of Żabbar Road, Fgura, before they were all axed in the 1990s

In stark contrast to past practices, the ERA now prioritises the transplantation of ficus trees over their destruction whenever possible. This shift reflects the recognition that ficus trees can thrive in suitable locations without causing damage, making transplantation a viable and sustainable solution.

What happened in Mosta?

The ERA’s consent to the Mosta local council’s request for ficus tree replacement with indigenous species was based on its recognition as an integral component of a broader urban regeneration project aimed at improving the town’s environmental and aesthetic appeal.

The Authority acknowledged that the removal of the ficus trees would be mitigated by their transplantation to a suitable location, the replacement of their green canopy with non-invasive indigenous trees, and the availability of nearby trees to provide temporary shelter for the displaced birds.

However, amidst growing public discontent and dismay at the sudden sight of the severely pruned trees ready for uprooting – which had come as a total surprise due to a lack of communication with the community from the local authority’s side – the local council reversed its decision and will maintain the trees in their original location.

The ficus trees in Mosta being prepped for removal.

How many permits for the removal of ficus trees has the ERA issued over the past two years?

Between 2022 and 2023, the ERA granted permission for the removal of 29 ficus trees, including the 12 in Mosta Square that were ultimately not removed. In almost all instances, the Authority imposed conditions requiring the transplantation of the removed trees to other locations and stipulating compensation for any transplanted trees that died as a result of poor workmanship.

A balanced approach

The ongoing public discussion surrounding ficus trees underscores the importance of a balanced approach to their management. While it is important to address concerns about infrastructure damage, it is equally crucial to recognise the benefits these trees provide, including their significant role in fostering space attachment – the emotional connection individuals have to specific places.

By carefully considering the specific context of each urban greening initiative, we can succeed in making Malta’s built environment more verdant while respecting the community’s enduring bond with their surroundings.

Main photo credit: Ray De Bono

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Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
6 months ago

Reading this opinion, I would probably have voted for the removal, perhaps even in a phased way. Had the Council sent a brief questionnaure to residents, it would have tested public reaction and not been exposed to criticism. Lets have more consultation.

Ray
Ray
6 months ago

The Ficus tree, particularly species like Ficus benjamina (Weeping Fig) or Ficus elastica (Rubber Tree), is often considered an ideal urban tree for several reasons:

  1. Adaptability: Ficus trees are highly adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions. They can thrive in both indoor and outdoor settings, making them versatile choices for urban environments.
  2. Air Purification: Ficus trees are known for their air-purifying capabilities. They can help filter out pollutants and improve air quality, which is especially important in urban areas where air pollution can be a significant concern.
  3. Aesthetic Appeal: Ficus trees are attractive and have a classic, elegant appearance. Their lush foliage and architectural form make them popular choices for urban landscaping, both in public spaces and private gardens.
  4. Tolerance to Pruning: Ficus trees generally tolerate pruning well. This is important in urban settings where space constraints or aesthetic considerations may require regular shaping and maintenance.
  5. Low Maintenance: Ficus trees are relatively low-maintenance plants. They are hardy and can withstand some neglect, making them suitable for urban environments where caretaking resources may be limited.
  6. Indoor Use: Certain Ficus species, like the Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica), are well-suited for indoor environments. They are known to thrive as houseplants, adding greenery to indoor spaces and contributing to a healthier indoor atmosphere.
  7. Shade Provider: In outdoor settings, Ficus trees can provide valuable shade. This is especially beneficial in urban areas where the “urban heat island” effect can lead to elevated temperatures, and shade trees can help mitigate this impact.
  8. Versatile Sizes: Ficus trees come in various sizes, from small potted plants to large, spreading trees. This versatility allows them to be used in a range of urban settings, including streetscapes, parks, and public squares.

It’s important to note that while Ficus trees have these positive attributes, no tree is universally ideal for every urban setting. Factors such as climate, soil conditions, available space, and specific urban challenges must be considered when selecting and planting trees in urban environments.

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