Individuals may reach heights of 30 m (100 ft). Like all figs it has an obligate mutualism with fig wasps; F. maxima is only pollinated by the fig wasp Tetrapus americanus, and T. americanus only reproduces in its flowers. F. maxima fruit and leaves are important food resources for a variety of birds and mammals. It is used in a number of traditional remedies across its range.
In 1768, Scottish botanist Philip Miller described Ficus maxima, citing Linneaus' Hortus Cliffortianus (1738) and Hans Sloane's Catalogus plantarum quæ in insula Jamaica (1696). Sloane's illustration of this plant (published in his 1725 A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica) depicted it with figs borne singly, a characteristic of the Ficus subgenus Pharmacosycea. A closer examination of Sloane's description led Cornelis Berg to conclude that the illustration depicted a member of the subgenus Urostigma, almost certainly F. aurea, and that the illustration of singly borne figs was probably artistic license. Berg located the plant collection upon which Sloane's illustration was based and concluded that Miller's F. maxima was, in fact, F. aurea.
In 1806 the name Ficus radula was applied to material belonging to this species. The description, based on material collected in Venezuela by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and French botanist Aimé Bonpland, was published in Carl Ludwig Willdenow's fourth edition of Linneaus' Species Plantarum. This is the oldest description that can unequivocally be applied to this species. In 1847 Danish botanist Frederik Michael Liebmann applied the name Pharmacosycea glaucescens to Mexican material belonging to this species. (It was transferred to the genus Ficus by Dutch botanist Friedrich Anton Wilhelm Miquel in 1867.) In 1849 the name Ficus suffocans was applied to Jamaican material belonging to this species in August Grisebach's Flora of the British West Indian Islands.
In their 1914 Flora of Jamaica, William Fawcett and Alfred Barton Rendle linked Sloane's illustration to F. suffocans. Gordon DeWolf agreed with their conclusion and used the name F. maxima for that species in the 1960 Flora of Panama, supplanting F. radula and F. glaucescens. Since this use has become widespread, Berg proposed that the name Ficus maxima be conserved in the way DeWolf had used it with a new type (Krukoff's 1934 collection from Amazonas, Brazil). This proposal was accepted by the nomenclatural committee in 2005.
|Common names of Ficus maxima|
|Amäk wäm||Lacandon Maya in Chiapas, Mexico|
|Maja||Tacana of Bolivia|
|Matapal||Trinidad and Tobago|
|Sàhàshá||Paya of Honduras|
Figs have complicated inflorescences called syconia. Flowers are entirely contained within an enclosed structure. Their only connection with the outside is through a small pore called ostiole. Monoecious figs like F. maxima have both male and female flowers within the syconium. Female flowers mature first. Once mature, they produce a volatile chemical attractant which is recognised by female wasps belonging to the species Tetrapus americanus. Female wasps of this species are about 2 mm (0.08 in) long and are capable of producing about 190 offspring.
Female fig wasps arrive carrying pollen from their natal tree and squeeze their way through the ostiole into the interior of the synconium. The syncomium bears 500–600 female flowers arranged in multiple layers - those that are closer to the outer wall of the fig have short pedicels and long styles, while those that are located closer to the interior of the chamber have long pedicels and short styles. Female wasps generally lay their eggs in the short-styled flowers, while longer-styled flowers were more likely to be pollinated. The eggs hatch and the larvae parasitise the flowers in which they were laid. Pollinated flowers which have not been parasitised give rise to seeds.
Male wasps mature and emerge before the females. They mate with the females, which have not yet emerged from their galls. Males cut exit holes in the outer wall of the syconium, through which the females exit the fig. The male flowers mature around the same time as the female wasps emerge and shed their pollen on the newly emerged females; like about one third of figs, F. maxima is passively pollinated. The newly emerged female wasps leave through the exit holes the males have cut and fly off to find a syconium in which to lay their eggs. The figs then ripen. The ripe figs are eaten by a variety of mammals and birds which disperse the seeds.
Ficus maxima fruit are consumed by birds and mammals. These animals act as seed dispersers when the defaecate or regurgitate intact seeds, or when they drop fruit below the parent tree. In Panama, F. maxima fruit were reported to have relatively high levels of protein and low levels of water-soluble carbohydrates in a study of Ficus fruit consumed by bats.
Black howler monkeys in Belize consume fruit and young and mature leaves of F. maxima. In southern Veracruz, Mexico, F. maxima was the third most important food source for a studied population of Mexican howler monkeys; they consumed young leaves, mature leaves, mature fruit and petioles. Venezuelan red howlers were observed feeding F. maxima fruit in Colombia.
The interaction between figs and fig wasps is especially well-known (see section on reproduction, above). In addition to their pollinators, Ficus species are exploited by a group of non-pollinating chalcidoid wasps whose larvae develop in its figs. Both pollinating and non-pollinating wasps serve as hosts for parasitoid wasps. In addition to T. americanus, F. maxima figs from Brazil were found to contain non-pollinating wasps belonging to the genus Critogaster, mites, ants, beetles, and dipteran and lepidopteran larvae. Norwegian biologist Frode Ødegaard recorded a total of 78 phytophagous (plant-eating) insect species on a single F. maxima tree in Panamanian dry forest—59 wood eating insects, 12 which fed on green plant parts, and 7 flower visitors. It supported the fourth most specialised phytophagous insect fauna and the second largest wood-feeding insect fauna among the 24 tree species sampled.