Strangler Figs: Villain or Hero?

Last week, we were visiting family in Okeechobee and spotted a young Strangler Fig wrapping its way around an old oak on the property. We figured we’d grab some pictures and dive into the story of the Strangler Fig today. The name Strangler Fig actually refers to dozens of plants. We could call the term ‘Strangler’ more of a descriptor than a name, so let’s talk about what it is describing. A Strangler Fig here in Florida is normally one of multiple species of Ficus that all have a similar growth habit. True to the name, these plants survive by choking the life out of other trees. While it might seem obvious that a huge Ficus who lives by suffocating large trees is bad, the jury is still out on the environmental merits of these plants.

The life of a naturally occurring Strangler Fig’s life begins when its seeds are deposited into the canopy of another tree by animal manipulation. Birds, bats, and monkeys all play instrumental roles in transporting seeds throughout forests; this process is essential to maintaining species diversity within an ecosystem, but we’ll save that deep dive for next week. Once seeds have been deposited in the forest canopy, they will begin to grow upward to reach light and send roots toward the ground to acquire nutrients. This unusual start to life represents the fascinating determination of all living things to survive. While most plants begin their lives growing in the medium they will utilize throughout, Strangler Figs begin as epiphytic, surviving on nutrients available on tree trunks, and will end as a huge terrestrial tree. Plants that grow in this way are referred to a hemiepiphytes. Researchers believe that this strange growth habit evolved as a survival adaptation within forests where competition for sunlight limits growth.

Once the baby Strangler Fig’s roots reach the ground, it will begin expanding rapidly to encase the lower trunk of its host. The more roots a plant has, the more nutrients it can absorb and use to grow an even larger root system. This cycle will encourage the Strangler Fig to continue wrapping its roots around the base of a tree. Though the outward appearance of a mature Strangler gives the impression that the host tree’s compressed trunk would result in death, the intense battle for survival is actually occurring beneath the soil. Much like animals competing for food within an ecosystem, plants compete for resources such as water by spreading roots into soil. In normal growth, this is why plants will naturally grow with space between them. Leaving space between each plant will ensure that they can all gather sufficient resources from the soil. The Strangler’s thick roots that reach deep into the soil parallel to the host tree’s will force both plants to compete for nutrition. Often times, the Strangler is more efficient at absorption than its host which leads the host plant to starvation. As the host tree deteriorates after death the Strangler will continue to grow around its trunk, now completely supporting itself.

The tragic fate of the host plant in this situation presents an interesting moral dilemma. Research indicates than in a host favorable situation, the Strangler provides structural support to the host. In the tropical forests these trees are native to, cyclones are a frequent threat to survival. Trees that are supported by a Strangler are less likely to be blown over during high wind events. In the case that the host tree dies, opportunities for various fauna appear. The Strangler’s growth habit will create a large ‘trunk’ that is hollow in the center. Various resourceful animals will utilize the hollow and accessible centers of Strangler Figs as shelter or places for storage. While one tree has to die for this situation to arise, a new tree is born that can host dozens of animals.

A note on Strangler Figs –

While their aggressive growth lends them to making beautiful urban tree structures, they have been outlawed in many urban plantings. The powerful root systems that allow them to out-compete host trees also happen to be highly destructive in urban environments.

I grew up in Southwest Florida where a type of Strangler Fig called Banyan Tree was all the rage during the region’s development. Today, you will find that the beautifully shaded sidewalks surrounding once Ritzy areas like the Edison Ford Winter Estate are nearly unwalkable. The thick roots of these ancient Banyans grow near the surface of the soil and are so strong that they have pushed the sidewalks up over 6 inches in some places.

Keep in mind that if you willingly opt to add a Strangler to the landscape that their roots can and will undermine the structural integrity of human settlements as far a 100 feet from the center of the tree.

While the most widely known Stranglers in the US are Ficus, other varieties exist across the globe. You will find that several plants within the Schefflera and Clusia genera are also regionally referred to as Stranglers though finding them growing this way in US climates in highly unusual.

So that’s the scoop on Strangler Figs… what do you think? Are Stranglers the hero or the villain in this story? Let us know where you stand in the comments!

Reminiscing on hot summer days swinging around in Banyan Trees while howling like a monkey will get me through this Friday. Happy Weekend, don’t forget to get out and play!

-Shade

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