The Twisted Goodness of East Africa’s Strangler Tree

By Asilia Africa News | 22 August 2018

By Warren Glam – Content Writer

The strangler fig tree is vital to life in East Africa. Animals and insects turn to it for food and shelter. Iconic tribes rely on it for their physical and spiritual well-being. All things remain grateful as one century gives way to the next.

That said, the strangler always takes before it gives an inch to the region. It always takes a lot. Here is a look at its price and why East Africa is willing to pay the cost in suffering.

The Forest

The tree grows in the Afromontane forests of East Africa. It is a lush, highly competitive space where every species must use what it has, to get what it needs. The environment has four layers. The forest floor makes up the bottom layer and is home to animals and many plants. Leaves, fruit and branches fall here and decompose.

The next layer is the understory. Shrubs grow here, though taller trees prevent much light from reaching them. Consequently, they’ve developed huge leaves to absorb as much light as possible. Plants in this layer grow no taller than 15 feet.

The canopy comprises the tops of all trees and is much like a big green umbrella covering the forest. Trees in this layer typically grow as high as 100 feet and absorb lots of light.

Finally, emergents make up the top layer. Somewhat above the sticky warmth of the lower forest, trees here can grow as high as 250 feet.

A Well-Deserved Name

The strangler has evolved to compete for forest resources by beginning its life as an epiphyte high in the canopy. Essentially, epiphytes are plants that grow on top of other plants, though they do not harm their host. Instead, they get their nutrients from the air, water and sunlight. Regarding the strangler, it sprouts from a small seed that gets to the canopy in the faeces of a monkey, bird or bat. The creature in question will have eaten the tree’s sweet fruit.

At this stage, the strangler grows upward, developing leaves to absorb sunlight. But unlike a regular epiphyte, the strangler fig also grows downward, wrapping itself around the host tree and driving gnarled roots into the ground. So, the strangler is, in fact, a hemiepiphyte.

The strangler fig helps itself to the sunlight and other nutrients the host tree needs, strangling it in the process. Ultimately, the host tree dies, leaving the strangler with a hollow trunk.

Photo credits: sciencemag


A female wasp will pollinate the fig, entering through a hole just large enough for her frame. The tight fit means she loses both her wings as she squeezes in. Her last act before dying is to lay her eggs in the stigma of the flower, with the hole in the fig wall closing at the end of this process.

A few days later, male wasps hatch, chew open female eggs and mate with their new partners. Then, the males chew a hole in the wall of the fig fruit before dying. Their winged female partners are tagged with pollen on their way out.

Once the wasps have left the fig, the seeds ripen and the fruit matures. The fruits’ scent will attract fruit-eating birds, bats and monkeys, who in turn eat the figs and spread the seeds in their droppings. For their part, female wasps, now full of eggs, can only make one flight with their delicate wings. At the end of it, they must find the right species of fig, at the right stage of development and launch the process once again.

The Giving Tree

Death is very much a part of how the strangler fig comes into being. But it does a lot to sustain life too. Many of the forest’s animals depend on figs as part of their diet. Also, birds, bats, reptiles and small mammals live in the fig’s many nooks and crannies.

The Tribes

The strangler fig has a long history with the tribes of East Africa. For Kenya’s Kikuyu, that history goes back to their mythical origin. The story begins with Ngai’s (God) first meeting with Gikuyu: father of the Kikuyu tribe. After giving Gikuyu a share of his land, Ngai sent him to the centre of the country, where there were many fig trees. Gikuyu went there and met a woman named Mumbi, who would bear him nine daughters.

When his children came of age, Gikuyu sacrificed a spotless ram and asked each of his daughters to cut a rod from a great fig tree. They did so and placed the rods on a fire, burning the ram on them as a sacrifice. In the morning, nine young men greeted them and would become their mates. Their children would found the nine tribes of the Kikuyu.

Beyond their origin story, ancient Kikuyu tradition holds that the spirits of dead ancestors live in strangler figs –known locally as mugumo trees. The Kikuyu also use the trees as places of worship, where they might pray for rain, large crops and many children, remove curses or cleanse wrongdoers. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania believe that earth and sky were once one and the same, and that the Maasai only acquired cattle at the time of their separation. Some versions of their origin story hold that their god, Enkai, brought cattle down from the sky with a rope made from fig-tree bark.


Tribes use the strangler fig in traditional medicine. The bark is an important ingredient in Imbembe, which women take during pregnancy to ensure an easy birth. People in the region also steep grated raw roots in water overnight and take a tablespoon in water three times a day to cleanse the blood. They use the tree’s leaves as compresses and poultices for wounds, boils, warts and other growths.

A Fair Price

The strangler relies on cruelty to seed and grow, scrapping to survive at the expense of other species. Yet its hand in ensuring the region’s health and future is undeniable, perhaps justifying its price.

Photo credits: i.ytimg

We would love to welcome you to East Africa and for you to witness the strangler tree in action. Get in touch with your usual travel agent or make an enquriy with us below.

The post The Twisted Goodness of East Africa’s Strangler Tree appeared first on Asilia Africa.

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