As a Ficus Condominium, Cloud Forest’s Strangler Fig Tree is more than a huge tree
By Courtney McBay
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica – The Banyan Tree’s sprawling trunk is a unique tangle of woody vines and hollow pits. It races against the tallest of the Monteverde Cloud Forest’s inhabitants, climbing upwards of 120 feet.
These trees are globally known as Strangler Fig Trees; to Marcos Mendez, they are nicknamed “Ficus Condominiums.”
Mendez, a trail guide for the Monteverde Biological Reserve, speaks of the cloud forest’s species with the expertise of a seasoned veteran mixed with the casual approachability of a friendly boy scout. His descriptions of each species’ interdependence on one another paint this forest as a self-reliant ecosystem—a world of its own. Each animal, insect, plant and microbe plays its own special role in creating and maintaining the lush landscape.
Its beauty is no secret: 50,000 of the area’s 150,000 annual visitors make Mendez’s trail their top priority. As the oldest and most famous cloud forest in the area, the Monteverde Biological Reserve has become a must-see for nature lovers.
The Banyan is not exclusive to Monteverde. The ficus thrives in rainforest, tropical forest and island climates, including those in Asia. According to the Royal Botanic Gardens, it has significant cultural importance in the Republic of India as its national tree.
But Mendez is more concerned with the Strangler Fig Tree’s ecological importance in the complicated forests of Costa Rica.
The Banyan gets its Strangler Fig Tree nickname because of how it establishes its twisty tracks of trunk. The Banyan begins its life as a sticky seed atop a host tree. It then extends its roots down the trunk of its host until those roots reach the ground. Mendez classified the tree as an epiphyte: a plant that grows on another plant without depriving the host of resources. Unlike a parasite, an epiphyte is able to live on after a host dies. And that is exactly what the Strangler Fig Tree does.
After the Banyan digs its roots into the ground, it begins to compete with its host for sunlight and water. The Banyan then wraps itself around its host from the top down, winning the fight for sunlight. Eventually, its host dies after weeks of inadequate chlorophyll activity.
The Banyan essentially strangles its host, thus its globally recognized slang term. Mendez warned not to take “strangulation” as a negative thing – he said this relationship is extremely important to the critters and crawlers of the forest.
After the Banyan’s host dies, it decays and leaves behind empty space between the Banyans’ root-trunk. This void is the perfect shelter for animals, including birds, monkeys and coatis.
It is in these ficus condominiums that animals hide from predators or build their homes.
They are the cloud forest’s prime real estate.