Life and Death of the Florida Strangler Tree

A fantasy inspired by the Strangler Fig tree at The Moorings, Islamorada

Were you a harmless, nameless tree, just standing there,
Motionless and proud, your boughs spread wide,
The product of a hundred fruitful summers,
Surviving the convulsions of Caribbean hurricanes,
Cold fronts and brisk north winds,
You might neither notice nor much care about
The arrival, perching quietly, of yet another bird.
Thousands stop from year to year,
Resting on their pilgrimage
To Antigua or St. Kitts and back,
You welcome them. They chatter. It passes time.

But be alert! One single bird could be your nemesis,
Sitting, resting, eating lunch - -
A juicy fig from some distantly related tree.
The bird pecks. It flies. You give it no more thought.
But resting in a crevice between your trunk and bough
It might have left behind a single seed,
Worried fiercely from a dark, ripe fig,
Falling ignored and overlooked.
Beware! This solitary seed in good conditions sprouts
And little tendrils grow, vertical and true,
Descend beside your trunk and seek the soil below.

Well, no problem. All are welcome here.
These are the tropics, just hang out, relaxed.
Trees have a long perspective and are cool.
This is not the first parasite you've met - -
Vegetable, animal, lichen, fungus.
All in all they bring some mutual benefits
In the relentless struggle for survival.
Lulled into a sense of false security,
You're pre-occupied with problems common to your kin - -
Nutrients, moisture, humidity, all aspects of dendrology,
Not to mention the weather and condition of your bark.
You fail to see the lurking danger till it's right upon you.

Suddenly you do become aware!
The roots of your tenant tree have dropped and rooted in the soil,
Thickened and become a tough and healthy wood,
Like pinions or cross-braces screwed into the earth.
Where the aerial roots cross, they fuse and merge,
Creating a hard, thick lattice of stout roots.
It cribs, confines you like a prison.
On windy days you barely move or sway.
You struggle like a ship against a hawser,
Trying to break the bonds that hold you from the sky.
Yes, this crafty Strangler Fig is now in competition
For the nutrients, light and water you have taken for granted.

You panic, struggle, but to no effect.
You stand there, bound, a prisoner in chains,
Making small, if any gains.
Your visitor's no vampire, sucking at your blood,
But battens on you, using up your vigor and your strength,
In fruitless struggle, using little effort of its own.
You cease protesting, give in, weaken, rot away.
Where once you stood, a proud and flourishing tree,
There is in time a poor and rotting hulk,
Gently decaying in the Florida half-light,
Attracting the attention of beetles, grubs and other mites,
The vultures and hyenas of the vegetable world.

In your place, your very own spot
Now stands a sinister, shapeless mass of crisscross roots,
Huge and spreading, center-less, without a form,
Impenetrable, jungle-like and dense.
The irony is that this triumphant Strangler Fig,
By its very nature a thousand rather shallow roots,
Is itself vulnerable, in dire and imminent danger.
Whereas you, its host withstood the weather for a century,
A serious hurricane might well uproot it, blow it down.
These roots are insubstantial faced with wind and rain;
They loosen in the meager soil, become unstable and give way.
Thus all will be to no avail; the Strangler strangled where it lies,
Bloated and overgrown, a victim of its own success.
Would it had stayed modest, or remained that single seed,
Worried fiercely from a dark, ripe fig,
Falling ignored and overlooked, not so reckless and ambitious.
Too late! It cannot be re-planted now.
Maybe there is some crude justice in the natural world.

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The Strangler Fig is also called the Banyan tree. In India it is also called the kalpavriksha, or the wish-fulfilling tree, representing eternal life, because of its host of ever-expanding branches.