How does Strangler Fig squeeze its host tree to death?

For centuries, Africa was a continent shrouded in mystery by the outside world. So little was known about it that it was dubbed ‘The Dark Continent’ by the Europeans. The only parts really known were the northernmost sections of the continent – those bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Exploration further down the continent was stymied by the vast, uninhabitable, treacherous Sahara Desert. 

It was not until the 15th century that any explorative efforts of the rest of the massive continent began. Portuguese explorers sailed down coast of Africa in an effort to map the continent. When they reached unknown lands past the range of their maps they set to shore and began exploring. They found hundreds of new types of animals, plants, insects, and foods. Upon returning to Africa they told wild, greatly exaggerated stories of their perilous journey. One of the ‘best’ stories they told was of a tree that eats people!

While there are carnivorous plants in the world (namely the Venus Fly Trap), they do not eat humans. They are not even close to the size necessary to do so as well. Today, we know for a fact that no man-eating trees exist in Africa, much less the world. But to superstitious, ignorant people during this time period, it was a plausible assumption. While there is not a man-eating tree, there is a tree eating tree.

The strangler fig is a parasitic species of tree that drains the life from a tree it wraps around and uses it for itself. The host tree is eventually reduced to nothing under the parasitic ministrations of the strangler fig. The strangler fig is native to the jungles of Africa, as well as most other tropical rainforests in the world. It is one of the most unique relationships in nature. How does such a relationship occur? How does the strangler fig reproduce itself?

When the strangler fig first germinates, it shoots up from the ground and immediately starts climbing and winding around the nearest tree. It gradually starts the suck the tree sap (nutrients) from its chosen victim. At this point, the strangler fig’s growth explodes. This growth is due to the extra nutrient source it receives from its host tree as well as the nutrients it pulls from its own roots in the ground. This spells deep trouble for the tree it has latched on to. Its roots are often prevented from getting enough nutrients by the strangler figs roots. Adding to that, the tree’s already present nutrients is sucked away by the strangler fig. The strangler figs branches and vines also quite literally strangle its host tree, preventing what nutrients the tree does get from reaching every extremity. As a result, the tree dies. Its leaves dry up and wither away.

The strangler fig then produces fruit. This fruit is eaten by local fauna like birds, squirrels, and monkeys. The seeds within the fruit are also consumed. The outer shell of the seed is dissolved during digestion. The seed itself is to hard to be digested, but once excreted, the lack of an outer shell allows to germinate nearly immediately and begin the process all over again. 

The strangler fig has its own unique way to survive among the dense rainforests of the world. It would be deprived of solar energy and water if it did not feed off other trees. It is a very fascinating flora specimen, unique among nearly any other type of plant.