Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Strangler Figs: Airborne Roots and Flying Buttresses

Coconut Grove, FL, where I was fortunate to spend a week with family for the holidays, is named after its palm trees, but the tree that will catch your eye more than any other is the strangler fig. 

How silly we are, these extraordinary trees seem to say, to think that trees should start life on the ground, have only one trunk, make their flowers seen and keep their roots tidily hidden. 

The strangler fig's logic is clever. How can a new tree survive in a tropical forest where existing trees cast deep shade and have a lock on soil nutrients? It starts its life as if on stilts, as an epiphyte high in the canopy, sprouting on the trunk of another tree. Oftentimes, the seeds, freshly digested by a bird, catch in the rough bark of a live oak, or a cabbage palm. Declaring itself improbably independent of nutrition from mother earth, it lives at first on air and rain, growing stems skyward and roots earthwards. When the roots reach the ground, the strangler fig's growth accelerates. The above ground portions turn into multiple trunks that envelope the host tree. That embrace can ultimately prove lethal, providing the strangler fig with a convenient supply of additional nutrients as the host tree rots away. 


More and more roots are sent downward, each one turning into yet another trunk when the roots reach the ground. Surely if one trunk is good, then many must be much better. The result brings to mind a cathedral replete with flying buttresses. 
The result of all this free-thinking, or if not thinking, then free-doing, is a tree you can walk through. 

This old beech tree in the Institute Woods in Princeton achieves a somewhat similar effect, though it's just one trunk that has rotted through. A closer equivalent in our forests is achieved in a more covert fashion. Trees like beech, sassafras, pawpaw, black locust, aspen, and the blackhaw Viburnum sprout new trunks as their roots spread underground, creating what appears to be a grove of trees that is in fact one individual.
Wikipedia lists 13 different species of strangler fig around the world. This one at Barnacle Historic State Park is the native Ficus aurea, whose fruits the sign says are edible. 

I'm guessing that many of the other strangler figs--those with myriad trunks like this impressive specimen at the University of Miami--are banyan trees from India.

On the left in this photo you can see some aerial roots growing towards the ground. 
Here's a closeup of a cluster of soil-seeking roots growing downward from a limb--another tree trunk in the making.

What little bamboo I saw in Coconut Grove paled in comparison to the expansionist aims of strangler figs. 

This fig appears ready to eat the pavement, 
while others drape themselves over walls, 
or probe the local infrastructure.

This strangler fig was so bold as to break into a tiger's cage.

Fortunately, there's no tiger living there now, just a couple of chickens. 

I forgot to mention the hidden flowers, which are borne inside the fruit and accessed only by a tiny wasp. Each species of fig has its own specialized species of fig wasp to fertilize it. For more reading, and some cool photos of just how tiny those wasps are, here's an interesting post. This Forest Service post describes the mutualistic relationship between the wasp and the tree, and says the U.S. has only two species of native fig. 

For anyone headed down Florida way, a good example of a banyan tree can be found at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Minipark, named after the famed activist and author of The Everglades: River of Grass.  

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