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.