Flora And Fauna

 

The Strangler Fig - A Keystone Species

What a horrible name for one of the most precious plants known to man!

Throughout  history, the fig has played an important role.  It has served as a food source, an item of commerce, and has played a part in various religions.  It is even thought, by some,  to be the “forbidden fruit” in the garden of Eden.  Think about where we assume the Garden of Eden might have been located! 

The strangler fig is but one of approximately 900 species of ficus.  A ficus is a plant that has both male and female parts in its flower, a hermaphrodite.   Why is it called a strangler? Read on.

The strangler fig begins life as an epiphyte, an air plant.  The fruit of the fig tree is eaten by a bird, or other animal.  This seed is very small and is not digested.  It passes through the bird and is then deposited on a leaf or branch of a tree.  The seed gets washed down to a notch, or “pocket“, and begins to germinate.  As it develops, it spreads branches upward toward the sun so that photosynthesis begins.  At the same time, another branch grows  toward the ground.  It will eventually become a root. 

                                                                               

                                                                                        Fruit and Seeds of the Strangler Fig        

The plant continues to grow down and around the host tree.  Other seeds also germinate and grow in the same manner.  Because the growing seeds are of the same genetic makeup, they often grow into one another, creating a basket-like effect around the host.  As the roots grow and encircle, they "strangle", depriving the host of water and other nutrients.  The growth upward, toward the light and sun, may also block the ability of the host tree to perform its own photosynthesis.

                                                                             

                                                                                                      Fully Grown Strangler

Cabbage palms are likely hosts for the strangler fig.  As you walk about Deerfield Island,  see how many stages of development you can find for stranglers and the stage of deterioration of the host tree.   Why do you think the cabbage palm makes a good host?    

                                                                                                          

                                                                             

                                                                                        Strangler on a Cabbage Palm  

Unfortunately, according to Naturalist and Park Manager Katharine Hendrickson, the strangler fig is not appreciated on Deerfield Island. Its ability to overcome native vegetation so quickly drastically reduces biodiversity and can deprive the habitat of protection against disease and reduce the available homes for species of all kinds. 

 

Ira Wechterman