(Above) The hollowed out trunk of a strangler fig
The term ‘strangler fig’ is applied to a particular growth pattern displayed by many species of the Ficus genus. The Ficus genus consists of around 850 species of trees, shrubs and vines collectively called ‘figs’. They are found natively throughout the tropics, and include some of our most beloved Indian trees such as the peepal (Ficus religiosa) and the banyan (Ficus benghalensis)—both of which display strangling behaviour.
It is essentially a growth method developed to get a leg up on the competition. The rainforest floor can be a difficult place for young seedlings to develop, as very little light filters down through thick overhead canopies. There is also a great deal of competition for water and nutrients with other plants. So unlike most other plants, strangler figs start their lives off as epiphytes on the branches of another fully grown tree. Their seeds are usually dispersed by birds, who drop them atop an existing tree, from where the fig begins to germinate. First, the strangler sends out many thin roots that crawl down the trunk of the host tree toward the ground, or dangle as aerial roots. Eventually, these roots hit the ground, dig in, and begin to compete with the host tree for resources. As the roots grow, they thicken and form a lattice around the trunk of the host, while putting out a thick canopy of leaves that overshadow the host, robbing it of sunlight. Eventually, the host dies of strangulation, loss of sunlight and root competition, and the strangler stands on its own as a hollow cylinder of roots.
Despite their deadly reputation, stranglers are an important part of rainforest ecosystems. Besides providing fruit for many species, their hollowed out trunks provide a home for many rodents, invertebrates, bats, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
© All images on this page are the work and property of Prasanjeet Yadav