Nature Nugget – The Strangler Fig

Although most people are familiar with the Old World edible fig (Ficus carica), the vast majority of fig species grow wild in exotic tropical regions of the world. The Ficus genus consists of close to a thousand different species that are found in every major rainforest and other tropical habitats. In some forests, up to 70 percent of its wildlife depend on the fruit of the fig trees for survival. Several different species of fig trees often grow side by side in the same forest, each producing fruit at a different time of the year so that there is always a supply of food for fruit-eating animals. Hundreds of birds and animals, such as pigeons, parrots, hornbills, toucans, monkeys, and fruit-eating bats, feed on the sweet fruit of the fig tree. Each species of fig tree has a symbiotic relationship with its own species of tiny pollinator wasps. This enables the different species of fig trees to co-exist without hybridization.

A certain group of fig trees are known as “stranglers” because of their unusual way of growth. Strangler figs start life as epiphytes on other tree species—their sticky seeds being deposited there after passing unharmed through the digestive tracts of birds and mammals. This is advantageous, because the floor of the tropical forests has little light and there is great competition for water and nutrients. The epiphytic seedlings grow slowly at first, getting their nutrients from the sun, rain, and leaf litter that has collected on the host trees. The young stranglers, as they grow, send down many thin roots that snake along the trunks of the host trees or dangle as aerial roots from their branches.

When the roots reach the ground, they dig in, and the stranglers put on a growth spurt, competing with the host trees for nutrients and water. They then send out an additional network of roots that encircle the host trees, forming a latticework that slowly fuses together. As the roots grow thicker around the host trees’ trunks, they squeeze them, cutting off their flow of nutrients. At the same time, up in the canopies, the stranglers’ crowns are growing foliage that soon overshadows the host trees, robbing them of sunlight. Eventually the host trees die from a combination of strangulation, insufficient sunlight, and root competition, leaving the strangler figs standing on their own.

The host tree soon rots, leaving a hollow center to the strangler fig’s trunk, providing an important home for thousands of invertebrates, rodents, bats, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Some strangler figs grow aerial roots from their branches that, when they reach the ground, dig in to form another trunk on the same tree. One particular strangler fig in India is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (1985) as the world’s largest tree, having 1,000 prop roots and covering an area of four acres!

In order for the strangler fig to grow into a giant so it can produce fruit, it must put down roots to reach the ground where the soil will nourish it, and it must reach its branches up into the sunlight. Likewise, the Christian, in order to grow into a spiritual giant and bear spiritual fruit, must be rooted in Christ and receive spiritual light from His Word. “Let everyone who would reveal Christ by being a doer of His Word, become rooted in Christ Jesus, rooted and grounded in the truth. Put away all self-assertion. Let living and acting the lessons of Christ Jesus speak of your perfect obedience to Jesus Christ. . . .

“The formation of the character must go on day by day, hour by hour. The inward working of the Holy Spirit is revealed outwardly in the appearance of fruit, ripening and perfecting to the glory of God.” That I May Know Him, 133.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: