The Fascinating Strangler Fig

An Air Plant Turned Parasite

Strangler fig, Florida Everglades
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Figs are successful forest trees with some 900 separate species worldwide. Figs are extremely common because of their excellent means of dispersal including abundant and good-tasting fruit. The strangler fig, or Ficus aurea, is one of the most interesting trees in a North American Everglades tropical hardwood hammock.

Strangler figs, sometimes called golden fig are native to south Florida and the West Indies. The strangler fig produces a continuous crop of seeds via the fruit that is very important to the ecosystem and a major food source for animals. Birds transport and spread these seed in droppings.

Strangler Fig's Unusual Propagation Method

Strangler fig seeds are sticky and attach to a host tree where it germinates and thrives in tropical moisture. The strangler fig begins its life as a parasite-like epiphyte or "air plant" but is always seeking a path to the ground and a more dependable source for root uptake of nutrients.

The tree's seeds lodge in bark fissures of an unfortunate host, germinate and send out air roots that take in nutrients and water from the air and host tree. Eventually, the air roots grow to reach the ground and develop their own underground root system. Cabbage palms are favorite hosts for the strangler fig.

Why the Name Strangler Fig

The Strangler Fig is one of the strangest plants in a tropical hardwood hammock. It completely entwines its roots and trunk around a host tree. The fig's crown grows foliage which soon overshadows the tree. Eventually, the host tree is "strangled" and dies, leaving the fig with a hollow trunk where the host used to be. The fig takes advantage of the nutrients produced by the rotting host.

The Tropical Hardwood Hammock

Strangler figs generally grow on raised land called hammocks. The typical tropical hardwood hammock in the Everglades develops only in areas that are protected from fire, flood and saltwater. The strangler fig is a very important tree in a typical hammock but not the only tree. A fig's tree cover type or biome includes Cabbage palm, slash pine, gumbo-limbo, saw-palmetto, poisonwood and live oak.

The Importance of a Strangler Fig

It is important to note that this killer epiphyte provides an important niche and food source to many tropical forest creatures. Its hollow trunk, with an abundance of nooks and crannies, provides an important home to thousands of invertebrates, rodents, bats, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. The strangler fig is also considered a "keystone" tree and necessary in the tropical hardwood ecosystem. Many forms of life are attracted to the fig tree because of its production of large amounts of fig fruits and can be the only source of food during certain seasons.