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Strangler Figs: When Hugging Becomes Too Much

Updated on January 17, 2018
Adult strangler fig.
Adult strangler fig.
Eighteen century drawing of a Banyan.
Eighteen century drawing of a Banyan.
Closer look on a strangler fig root network system.
Closer look on a strangler fig root network system.
Detail on the strangler fig root network system.
Detail on the strangler fig root network system.
Another strangler fig specimen, this with aerial root system serving as aditional trunks.
Another strangler fig specimen, this with aerial root system serving as aditional trunks.
Strangler fig on a Angkor Wat temple walls in Cambodja.
Strangler fig on a Angkor Wat temple walls in Cambodja.
An enourmous and classified Ficus macrophylla Desf. ex Pers. in Ponta Delgada, Azores.
An enourmous and classified Ficus macrophylla Desf. ex Pers. in Ponta Delgada, Azores.

Strangler Fig is the common name given to fig trees of several species, all found in tropical and subtropical climates. The most well known are:

  • Ficus aurea, also known as the Florida Strangler Fig and is common in all Central America
  • Ficus barbata, also known as the Bearded Fig, is indigenous to Caribbean island of Barbados.
  • Ficus watkinsiana is endemic to Australia.
  • Ficus obliqua, commonly know as the Small-leaved Fig, is endemic to eastern Australia.
  • Ficus benghalensis, commonly known as the Banyan, is found in the Indian subcontinent.
  • Ficus citrifolia, also known as the Shortleaf Fig, Giant Bearded Fig or Wild Banyantree, is native to southern Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America south to Paraguay.
  • Ficus macrophylla, commonly known as the Moreton Bay Fig, is native of most of the eastern coast of Australia.
  • Ficus microcarpa, also known as Chinese Banyan, Malayan Banyan, Indian Laurel or Curtain fig, is native in the range from Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia to Australia and New Caledonia.
  • Ficus religiosa, also known as the Sacred Fig or Bo-Tree is native from Indian Subcontinet to southwest China and Indochina.

The common name strangler fig comes from the aggressive and yet unusual and peculiar grow habit of these species. These plants begin life as epiphytes, when their seeds, often dispersed by birds and small mammals, germinate in crevices atop other trees. At this stage they obtain water and nutrients from the residues, mainly organic, that accumulate in the crevices on the tree branches where they grow. During this initial period of their lives, as epiphytes, strangler figs grow quite slowly but sufficient that their roots grow downward and extend throughout the branch where they started and the trunk of the host tree. They also develop free pending aerial roots. Once the roots penetrate the ground the strangler fig tree has found the major source of nutrients and water. From this point the strangler fig tree grow rate changes to become a fast growing plant, competing with the host tree for water and nutrients. As the roots grow they interlace forming a network of twisted and entwined roots that fuse together and surround the whole host tree trunk eventually. The roots grow thicker and squeeze the trunk of its host and due to very hard competition they cut off its flow of nutrients from the soil. At this point they seemed to strangle the host tree, thus their name. The aerial roots forming from strangle figs branches also grow thicker and become another trunk of the same tree. During this vigorous period of their lives, the strangler fig puts out lots of leaves in the canopy that soon grow thicker and wider than the leaves of host tree robbing it of the essential sun light. The strangler fig leaves are waxy which protects them from drying winds and sun light to which they are exposed high in the canopy. Strangler figs are tall canopy trees which can grow up to 50 m high. Eventually, with these strange but efficient tools and strategies of strangler figs the future does not look bright for the host tree. Due to simultaneous severe competition to sunlight and nutrients the host tree can die eventually from insufficient sunlight and root competition. After the host tree rots a hollow center is all that remains of it. A columnar tree is formed by the strangler fig entwined root system and the strangler fig stands on its own in the forest, as a winner. It is common that several strangler fig plants of even different species grow on the same host tree. As they grow their roots entwine and fuse together forming a complex network system. After the host has died they form a single unit looking like a single tree. Scientists working in Panama rain forest found, through genetic studies, that most of the specimens of strangler fig trees were in fact associations of two or three individuals. In one case they found eight different specimens fused together forming a single large tree. This fact can explain what scientists found intriguing for quite sometime that adult strangler figs often have branches that bloom at different times of the year. Probably they belong to different individuals from different species with different fruiting cycles. This type of symbiotic relationship is called "species packing". Scientists also believe that this strategy allows different species of Ficus to grow side by side without cross pollinating. For the forest community and especially for birds and mammals feeding on figs, this strategy of strangler figs makes them a valuable species as a source of food supply throughout most of the year if not the whole year. This gives the strangler fig fruits a greater chance of being eaten by animals and having their seeds dispersed.

This growth habit of strangler figs is an adaptation for growing in dark forests where the competition for light and nutrients is intense. Also, in many tropical and subtropical regions where it lives, the forest floor is a difficult place for seedlings to grow. There is little light and a lot of competition for water and nutrients. Strangler figs have thus made an adaptation to overcome these difficulties. Although it may be aggressive to human eyes, their strategy has its merit and ensures them a successive survival in the competitive rainforest.

Some Facts & Curiosities About Strangler Figs

  • Due to their growing habit they are quite popular as ornamental trees and also as bonsai trees.
  • Ficus bengalensis is considered sacred to Hinduism and is the national tree of India. One particular tree of this species, named the Greater Banyan, located in Howrah, near Kolkata, in India, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records of 1985 as the world's largest tree. At present it has about 2880 aerial roots reaching down the ground. The tree covers an area of 14500 m2 (4 acres). It is believed to be between 200 and 250 years old. Ficus bengalensis figures also in the coat of arms of Indonesia.
  • Ficus barbata figures in the coat of arms of Barbados.
  • Buddha is believed to have achieved enlightenment in Bodhgaya in India while meditating under Ficus religiosa specimen, Sacred Fig, known as Bodhi Tree. Ficus religiosa, as many strangler figs species, is used in traditional medicine for treating about 50 types of disorders ranging from nervous and gastric problems, to sexual disorders.

The Ignominious Strangler Figs

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