The Tree Strangler



I was going to write this blog entry about a gardening tool that I am particularly fond of, but I have become obsessed with the Strangler Fig lately and so I’m going to write about that instead and will leave writing about my favorite tool for another time.


Once, I read a book whose first line read, “My earliest ambition was to become a missionary-bishop and in due course to be eaten by cannibals.” The rest of the book was rather anticlimactic in comparison to that intriguing statement, but how could you not keep reading a book which begins in that way? I was similarly drawn in by the Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea), but in contrast, its story is just as interesting as its name. It begins life as an epiphyte, a plant that lives on a host plant but gets its sustenance from the air, rain, and airborne debris, rather than feeding on the host itself. Quite a benign start – but one that quickly becomes rather sinister. After attaching itself to the host (usually a tree and often a palm because of the grooves in the bark), it begins to grow. Aerial roots grow downward to attach to the soil and thicken. Others grow upward and tangle themselves around the leaf buds, preventing them from opening. Still others wrap themselves tightly around the trunk, keeping it from increasing in girth. As the Fig gets bigger, its thick canopy of leaves covers the host tree and blocks out any light. The host tree eventually weakens and dies, leaving a hollow centered, self supporting “tree” that is largely made up of Strangler Fig roots.


Since it starts its life near the top of the tree – its seeds having been deposited there by a bird – the Strangler Fig  has the advantage over trees growing directly in the soil, as it starts out much closer to the light. Being able to survive on air and rain means it isn’t dependent on the soil except as an anchor when it has become bigger than its host. It is not unusual, where these plants are found, to see a perfectly healthy tree with a strange growth of Strangler Fig clinging to the side, perhaps shooting out an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque” appendage to grapple onto a nearby limb and hold it in its clutches. And we already know how the story will end, with a big knotty tangle of roots, some perhaps two feet in diameter, squeezing the life out of the poor tree that the Fig has landed on. No wonder it is sometimes called a “vegetable octopus”, or the “boa constrictor of the plant world”.


The strangling of a tree can take decades, if the host is big and strong, a lot less time if it is smaller. But it will happen, and the tree will eventually die and rot away, the rotted trunk then fed on by the Fig. The host has, in effect, been eaten by a vegetative cannibal. The only way to stop it is to get the Strangler Fig while it’s young and cut it out of the tree. In fact, that tool that I was going to write about would be just the thing for that job… But that’s for another time.




If you look at the top of the picture, you will see the palm tree that is being swallowed up by the Strangler Fig.




What it looks like at the bottom.


New Beginnings


Here in New England, it has been a VERY long winter. For those who make their living plowing and salting, the relentless snow and bitter cold has been a real boon, although they probably won’t realize it until they have been able to drag their weary selves to bed and sleep for two weeks. For the gardener, however, this winter hasn’t even been hospitable enough to take a cup of coffee round the garden to dream of summer plans, unless you want your Wellies full of snow and your coffee and enthusiasm to be cold in a matter of minutes. So, you amuse yourself indoors with gardening magazines and seed catalogues, and look longingly out over the garden from inside. These activities only go so far to scratch the gardening itch, however – in a moment of desperation this year I even sharpened my pruners, a job which I always mean to do in the winter but never get around to.

It is now March, and it has found me with sharp pruners and the desire to think spring no matter what. As a designer, I already have jobs lined up to begin once the ground clears, so there is now something of a sense of urgency when it comes to getting my own jobs done at home. I started some seeds a couple of weeks ago, and they are now pushing eagerly upward towards the light and add an infectious atmosphere of enthusiasm and optimism to my studio. It will soon be time to prune deadwood out of the shrubs and trees, and to try to make some sense out of the grape vines, which made an impressive bid to take over the world last season. I should have tamed them before the snow fell, but I was just too busy and so they were allowed to continue their fantasy of dominance for a few more months. But not for much longer… (insert maniacal laugh here.)

Conventional gardening wisdom says that a garden should be tidied up and “put to bed” before winter comes. Perennials should be cut to the ground, leaves raked away, and bare ground be left to look neat and tidy before the snow flies. Recent studies have found, however, that providing you can stand the look of it, you should leave everything alone. Rake the leaves off your lawn, yes, but wait until spring to cut down the perennials. The seed heads are enjoyed by the birds, the old stems and foliage protect the crown of the plant, and the garden looks more interesting. Leaves that have fallen around the plants will insulate them and break down over the winter, adding nutrients to the soil. And, let’s be honest, fall clean up isn’t much fun. Memories of the summer still in my head, the last thing I want to do is put those memories in the compost heap, as sinister thoughts that I should start thinking about the holidays begin to take root in my mind. So I’m more than happy to leave that job to spring.

In the spring, it’s all about new beginnings, promise, and potential, and all jobs are more pleasant. I relish the first scratches, bruises, and sore muscles of the season. All are satisfying reminders that despite the snow (which is actually very good for the garden as it insulates the plants and provides them with needed nitrogen) the garden will be ready for action in a matter of weeks.

So look out, grape vines, here I come! Now, if I could just find those pruners…

Coming soon to a garden near you!

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick