The Florida strangler fig is a tree from the Moraceae family, with the scientific name Ficus aurea. The name shows the tree is native to Florida but it also grows in Mexico and all Central American countries down to Panama, as well as islands in northern and western Caribbean. Strangler fig was described for the first time in 1846 by Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist who gave it the specific name aurea.
Strangler figs are trees with a special growth pattern. Seeds initially germinate in the canopy of another tree, which acts as a host. The fig begins its life as an epiphyte but eventually the roots make contact with the ground. The fig then grows around the host tree in a typical strangling pattern that gives the species its name. Eventually, the tree reaches a height of up to 30 m and becomes free standing without the need for a host.
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All figs have a symbiotic relationship with fig wasps and this species is no exception. Fig wasps can only reproduce in fig flowers and are the only insects able to pollinate them. In tropical rainforests, strangler figs are used as cover or shelter by many other species, including epiphyte plants, birds, reptiles, invertebrates and mammals. Many of them depend on the fruits for food. The strangler fig tree is suitable for live fences and as an ornamental or bonsai plant, as well as in traditional medicine.
Strangler fig fruits are delicious and have been consumed for a very long time. They were important in the diet of Florida natives and the first European settlers considered the figs to be a local delicacy. Figs remain popular today among the people who live in the area.
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Besides the fruit, other parts of the tree have commercial importance. Natural chewing gum can be prepared using latex extracted from it. The roots were used as fishing lines and also as lashings, arrows and bowstrings. It is possible to extract a natural dye with a rose color from the strangler fig fruits. Because of its many uses, the tree is usually spared when forests are transformed into pastures. For this reason, it is commonly found in the dairy farms of Costa Rica in areas like Santa Elena, La Cruz and Canitas.
Farmers have especially valued the tree for its use as a cheap and effective living fence. In addition, strangler figs are a good source of fodder for both wild and domesticated animals, as well as firewood.
All types of figs are known for the very high amount of phenolic antioxidants, as well as other essential nutrients. It is rich in fibers and studies have revealed it is one of the best sources for phenols of all fresh and dried fruits. Trials on people who consumed dried fruits with carbonated drinks have found that figs and dried plums were the most nutritive of all. Antioxidants found in figs are especially useful because they protect the lipoproteins in plasma. The effect lasts several hours after consumption and the strong antioxidants are able to counter the free radicals found in carbonated soft drinks, which are very high in unhealthy corn syrup with a high content of fructose.
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The strangler fig fruit is rich in fiber, which is excellent for digestion and can help reduce weight. It is not however recommended for obese people, in particular not with milk, due to the high amount of calories.
A soluble fiber named pectin is one of the most useful components of figs. It is a dietary fiber that provides important health benefits. Fiber can collect excess cholesterol from the digestive tract and eliminate it through excretion, which reduces the risk of many diseases. It also regulates bowel movements because it is soluble in water. The very high percentage of fiber makes figs a very effective natural laxative. A diet rich in fiber can prevent very serious diseases such as colon cancer and also common problems like constipation.
Other useful compounds found in strangler figs are phenol and fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Scientists have established that fatty acids are good for human health and prevent fatal coronary heart diseases. Extracts of fig leaves were also found to decrease the level of triglycerides, which are another type of dangerous chemicals that cause diseases.
Strangler fig leaves can also be used to brew a medicinal tea. This beverage is used in the treatment of many respiratory conditions. It can reduce the effects of asthma, counter bronchitis and facilitate breathing in general.
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The particular pattern of growth of the strangler fig makes it popular as an ornamental plant. It is easily controlled when young and very suitable for open spaces but becomes harder to grow when mature. It can even cause damage to buildings and other structures if it is allowed to expand unchecked. An additional use in gardens is that it provides shelter for insects, birds and animals, due to the very intricate structure.
All fig species are a potential hazard in built-up areas because they can damage foundations. As a result, young plants must be eliminated to prevent future problems. This is especially a concern when young ornamental plants are allowed to expand and their root system spreads rapidly, being very hard to control in small spaces. If enough open space is available, for example in some areas of Florida, the strangler fig can be a useful tree for the conservation of energy, since it is not as aggressive as some of its relatives.
The strangler fig inhabits southern regions of North America, some Caribbean Islands and most of Central America. Its range starts in the north in central Florida and it is also found in the south of the state, as well as the Florida Keys. Strangler fig grows on the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, The Bahamas, the Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands and San Andres. In Central America, it is native to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama. Strangler fig is adapted to several types of forest habitats, from cloud rainforest in Costa Rica to dry forests in the Bahamas, and thrives from sea level up to elevations of 1800 m.
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The strangler fig is usually propagated by birds, which consume the fruits and carry the seeds to catchment areas between the leaves of the cabbage palm. This type of palm is one of the most common hosts, along with oaks. However, the figs are also able to grow in rock cracks and even on house roofs. The seedling needs a layer of humus in order for its roots to become well-established. Seeds will germinate airborne as long as the humidity and temperature conditions are right. It is initially an epiphyte but its roots immediately start descending to the ground, wrapping around the trunk of the host tree.
If the available soil is limited, the species will produce numerous aerial roots. These spread in all directions and cover the surface of the host tree or rock. As soon as the tree becomes established and secures enough resources, it will develop a dense crown, covering the one of the host. The roots are initially thin and wrap around the host's trunk but they eventually merge into a woody trunk that strangles it. Due to this pattern and the shading, the host becomes weaker in time. However, it must be said that the Ficus aurea is not a true parasite and it doesn't feed from the host. It will eventually completely envelop and kill the host tree but this is a slow process that can take decades. All epiphyte species behave in this way, continuously expanding their network of roots and the crown. Unlike other ficus species, the strangler fig doesn't send aerial roots outside the trunk area.
Seeds are a viable option for propagation. They don't even need soil in order to germinate and can do it both in shaded locations and in sunny ones. As long as plenty of space is available, the strangler fig is a useful ornamental tree in gardens and public areas. It requires soil with good drainage and an adequate content of organic matter but it will otherwise tolerate any composition.
It is a resilient tree that can resists even the power of hurricanes without breaking, although the crown and the branches can be seriously affected. Strangler figs might need a few years to recover from hurricane damage and grow back the lost leaves. It is also very resilient, being able to grow in brackish water and even survive after being inundated by salt water. The root system can cause serious damage to buildings, as well as septic tanks and layers of asphalt. The sap is very sticky, which can make pruning difficult. It is a semi-deciduous species and large trees can mess up the surrounding areas when they shed all of their leaves during winter or spring. The seeds can germinate airborne and also in any stone cracks or fissures.