The sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus), known as mukuyu among many peoples of central and southern Kenya, occurs naturally in forests, wooded savannahs, and along rivers. It has a spreading crown and smooth, yellowish-gray bark, and grows up to 25 meters tall. Its fruit is an edible fig, up to 5 centimeters in diameter, ripening from pale green to yellow or red. The figs grow in dense clusters on small, leafless branches or from the leaf axils. They are fleshy and sweet and can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried for later use. Harvest takes place between July and December. When cultivated, the trees are propagated from cuttings and planted during the onset of the rains. This species is fairly fast growing. In some areas it is intercropped with bananas. It usually takes 3-5 years to produce a sizeable harvest. It grows at elevations up to 2,000 meters in areas with temperatures between 0 and 40 °C. It prefers deep, well-drained, loam to clay soil rich in nutrients, and needs at least 8 hours of sunlight a day. The soil should remain moist without becoming waterlogged: Too little water cause the flowers and fruits to drop, while too much water prevents flowering or stunts fruit growth. Extreme heat and dry weather can slow or stop production.
The sycamore fig has multiple purposes in various cultures throughout Kenya, and has many local names. It is an important source of shade for both people and livestock. The trees are a valuable source of honey, as bees build their hives in holes in the trunk. The inner part of the root is used to weave fiber in some communities, and rope can be made from the inner bark. The wood is used to make beehives, utensils (such as mortars and bowls), and musical instruments. It is also used in construction and boat building. The Turkana people of northwestern Kenya, who call this species echoke, make flour from the dried figs and mix it with grain flours to make a porridge called atap. They also feed the leaves to their cattle. In Gikuyu traditions, mukuyu is a sacred tree. Sacrifices to Ngai, the supreme creator, were performed under this tree. It is considered a bad omen when a mukuyu tree falls, and elders must perform a cleansing ritual if this happens. Some ceremonies are still carried out under the mukuyu, and the trees are an important meeting place. The bark, leaves, and milky latex of the sycamore fig all have medicinal value. The Gikuyu use the sap for toothache and the juice of the fruits as a topical treatment for skin diseases or irritation.
The use of the sycamore fig is declining (the fruits are no longer commonly eaten) due to changing cultural practices and the abandonment of traditions— many people no longer have respect for these trees. Increased rates of land clearance for agriculture and a lack of water due to deforestation are the greatest threats facing this tree in Kenya. It is important to protect the sycamore fig not only because of its cultural value, but also because it is an important food source for a huge variety of wildlife.