The Strangler Fig
Family: Moraceae (Mulberry)
Sound like something from a horror movie? Well, its behavior certainly is. The rotten habits of the Strangler Fig have earned this type of Ficus its dastardly nick-name.
Strangler Fig is a common term for several species of Ficus that grow in tropical and subtropical forests throughout the world, and the term can even be used to refer to any vine that exhibits the behavior similar (sucking the life out of its host plant while it thrives). As there are more than 150 species of Strangler figs in the New World forests alone, I’m going to focus mainly on the ones in Central and South America. Several years ago, on an ethonobotanical sojourn to a Peruvian rainforest, the tale of the Stranglers was relayed to me by one of our local guides and has haunted me ever since.
In a very general sense, the Strangler Figs are considered Banyans, as Banyans are defined as a fig that starts out as an epiphyte. This is very common because most species (if not all) of Ficus produce small fruits (figs!) which birds, bats, monkeys and other small animals dine on, thus distributing the seeds via their waste, to all manner of cracks and crevices of a host tree. (This is not to be confused with the Ficus benghalensis, or Indian banyan which is the national tree of India.)
In the competitive world of the tropical forest, sunlight and compost are hot commodities. The Strangler fig has figured out exactly how to get what it needs.Once the animal has left behind the seed, which is now nestled in a crook of a tree covered in fertilizer (aka animal feces) it is only a matter of hours before it starts to thrive. Slowly it grows roots, which begin to reach down toward the soil below. The roots can grow hundreds of feet long, and eventually form a lattice-like network around the tree’s trunk and into its root system. It also grows up toward the sunlight, eventually shading the host tree from sunlight. In this way the Strangler fig is slowly but surely strangling the life out of its host tree. It is robbing the nutrients from the ground, gobbling up the sunlight above, and using the structure to wrap ever tighter and grow ever larger. More often than not the Strangler Fig kills its host, though some have shown enough mercy to let the host tree live–though it is only a shadow of the life they once had.
You wouldn’t necessarily notice if you strolled by one. You might just think you see a big, beautiful, healthy Ficus tree. But upon closer inspection you’ll see the “trunk” is a network of roots, its support being the carcass inside.
Strangler figs do play an important role in the ecology of forests, including providing rotanical homes for bats and other small animals as well as food for a wide variety of species.
A very wonderful and menacing plant in the kingdom of Rotten Botany.
[…] It turns out a nocturnal marsupial, Dromiciops australis is the exclusive distributor of mistletoe seeds in their neck fo the woods. They chomp ‘em down and, you guessed it, distribute them via defecation. The seeds happy in a bed of pure compost, can sprout right there on the branch. This is actually a common (and very effective) means for plant distribution throughout the world, very similar to what happens with Strangler Figs. […]