MATAPALO DALE R MORRIS.
Published in Nature Air in-flight Magazine, Feb 2005.
If strangler fig trees lived in my native England, oh what a happy childhood I would have had. Such bizarre twisted forms, full of caverns and convolutions, perfect for climbing, perfect for boyhood adventures.
However, they do not grow in Europe, or anywhere else outside of the tropics, so now I make up for my lost childhood experiences by scrabbling around on them whenever I get the chance to.
My poor wife worries whenever I find a fig tree. She knows
I can't resist being a ten-year-old again.
"Come down Dale, you'll fall and hurt yourself," she chides.
She doesn't understand. How can she? She was never a boy.
Like magical unearthly things conjured forth from the minds of Lewis Carol or J R Tolkein, strangler figs appear to be something more than mere trees. Folkloric legends abound of witches, ghosts, gods and monsters dwelling within their tortured trunks. Demons aside, they truly are weird and wonderful life forms, boasting a truly weird and wonderful lifestyle to match.
Most "normal" trees begin their lives from the forest floor, growing upwards towards the sun and sky, but matapalos, as they are known is Spanish, have abandoned tradition. They, instead, grow "down."
The name means "tree killer," a descriptive title if ever there
was one, for every matapalo has taken the life of another stately
giant so that it may itself exist.
The largest parasites to have ever graced the natural world, these behemoths, weighing a hundred tons or more, germinate from a miniscule seed, doing so in the highest reaches of the canopy - an unusual place for a tree to grow!
After eating ripe figs, monkeys, bats and birds carry the seeds
within their stomachs, eventually pooping them out somewhere
high above the forest floor. Atop a tree, embedded in its own
little compost garden with access to direct sunlight a new
life begins. Tendrils snake down, engulfing its unwilling host
in a sinister embrace. Death may take a hundred years, but
the victim's fate is certain and sealed.literally.
Eventually the host rots away completely, leaving nothing more
than a hollow tube running through the heart of the now mighty
But despite their malevolent origins, strangler figs are marvelous
and important additions to any tropical forest. Their fruits
satisfy a thousand hungry bellies while their trellised branches
offer sanctuary to a multitude of beasts. But perhaps more
importantly, at least as far as I'm concerned, these mysterious
trees exist primarily to bring out the adventurer, the imaginer,
the monkey and the child that resides in every one of us.