Fascinating, sanctified, opportunistic, murderous. Whatever you think of strangler figs, they are a captivating family of plants that have adapted to not only survive but thrive in the ultra-competitive environment of the tropics.
With their serpentine aerial roots and insidious growth habit, it’s no wonder strangler figs have piqued human interest throughout history. They have inspired myths, featured heavily in Eastern religion, and there's even the suggestion a country was named after one species.
Barbados is often believed to have derived its name from Los Barbados, meaning 'the bearded ones', in reference to the long beards (roots) of the strangler figs that Portuguese sailors saw as they approached the island.
The strangler figs are part of the extensive Ficus family. Many of our favourite houseplants, like the weeping fig, rubber plant and fiddle-leaved fig, are also in this family as is the edible fig.
There are over 750 fig species, and of these the most often seen as ‘stranglers’ are the banyans.
Some notable species include the Indian banyan, bearded fig, council tree, shortleaf fig, Florida strangler and the Moreton Bay fig.
The sacred fig of the Buddhist and Hindu religions also shares the same hemiepiphytic growth habit. It is also known as the bo/bodhi tree, pippala tree, peepul or ashwattha tree.
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It’s important to recognise that strangler figs are not parasitic, but use host trees to get a leg-up over their competitors.
The fig seed germinates high up in the canopy, usually deposited there by a bird or monkey. Unlike most trees, which germinate on the forest floor and must either scramble for light or wait for an old giant of the forest to fall, the baby strangler is already much closer to the sun’s light.
The seedling sends down long aerial roots which may dangle many metres before they reach the earth. Although a large number of rainforest plants are fully epiphytic, living their entire lives up in the trees, strangler figs are considered hemiepiphytes, as they put roots into the ground as they mature.
The Curtain Fig Tree of Australia is a heritage-listed tree and tourist attraction. It's not uncommon for a mature fig to lean over, often taking over the neighbouring tree.
Once the fig’s roots reach the earth, growth is accelerated by the new flush of nutrients. The aerial roots begin to embrace the host tree, thickening as they do so to form a choking lattice.
The fig’s aggressive growth blocks sunlight above ground and steals food and water from the earth. At this point, the host tree will often diminish, eventually dying to leave the hollow, columnar form of the strangler fig standing in its place.
The Great Banyan Tree is over 250 years old and covers about 3.5 acres of land in Calcutta, making it the widest **tree** in the world. Each 'prop root' looks like a tree in itself.
Strangler figs, despite their colossal size, are pollinated by tiny wasps. They produce a hollow flower-bearing structure called a cyconia, and it’s inside here the wasps complete their lifecycle, pollinating the figs in the process.
Each species of wasp has its own symbiotic relationship with a fig species.
Fruit of the forest
Brutal as strangler figs may sound, they are very beneficial for the forest ecosystem and are considered a keystone species due to their long, staggered fruiting seasons. Exotic forest fauna, such as birds, fruit bats and monkeys all rely on figs to survive.
Unfortunately, due to deforestation, seeing a grand old strangler is becoming more and more of a rarity. If figs disappear and a single species of tree is planted as a replacement, it will cause problems with fruit appearing (and disappearing) all at once, rather than staggered throughout the year.
Despite their seemingly invidious nature, strangler figs are the lifeblood of tropical rainforests.