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Strangler Figs

JEROME JACKSON

What’s in a name? Giving anything a name such as “strangler fig” immediately conjures up negative feelings towards the creature. Our “strangler fig” – a native of Florida – has the scientific name Ficus aureus – a name given to it for its quarter-inch diameter golden yellow fruit shortly before they are ripe. Yes, we have a native fig. So why aren’t its fruits larger? The large figs we buy at the supermarket are the product of human selection. The name “strangler fig” was given because birds and other animals eat its fruit and the seeds can pass through an animal’s digestive system and be deposited with a bit of fertilizer. A bird sometimes bites into the fruit with great pressure, causing seeds to pop out. Some can get stuck to the outer surface of a bird’s bill and the bird will wipe them off on a branch – where the sticky juice holds them in place. In either case, with rain, a seed can germinate and a new plant begins to grow – producing leaves that make use of the sun’s energy to produce roots. The roots are influenced by gravity and grow straight down, typically blowing in the wind until they reach the ground. While blowing in the wind, they often get wrapped around the tree trunk –which led to the name “strangler fig”. In some cases, they can kill a tree – but only after a very long time. Many 600-year-old baldcypress at Corkscrew Sanctuary are still very much alive, while encircled by Ficus aureus roots. The relationship between the fig and its “host” tree goes both directions. Once the fig roots reach the ground, they contribute to the stability for the pair during hurricane winds. Our “strangler fig” also often grows from seeds that have fallen to the ground – it doesn’t have to “strangle”. Why not recognize the positive roles it plays in Florida’s wetland ecosystems? It provides food for many species of birds, mammals, and other creatures. Perhaps we should change its common name to “Golden Fig”.