Not truly strangling the tree upon which it first sprouted, the strangler fig (Ficus aurea) simply uses its "host" plant for support. As the dangling roots and sprawling branches grow, the fig overtakes the host and kills it by shading out light and robbing the soil of nutrients and soil. Strangler fig trees become large tropical shade trees with good resilience to tropical windstorms. A large landscape is needed so the fast-growing tree's branches and roots do not cause crowding.
The strangler fig's botanical name is Ficus aurea, a member of the mulberry family, Moraceae. Other common names include the Florida banyan, Florida strangler fig and the golden fig.
Strangler fig is native to southernmost Florida and the islands of the Caribbean. It is normally associated with sunny scrub-land hammocks filled with cabbage palms, which is the species of plant a seedling strangler fig most often germinates upon and overtakes with roots and branches as it matures.
Growing to 50 or 60 feet tall and sometimes two to three times as wide, strangler fig is a large subtropical tree with smooth light brown bark. A young seedling begins life as a sprout in the crotch of another tree or in the palm frond bases, or boots, of palm trunks. The roots clasp to the plant and as the strangler fig grows, it out-competes the supporting plant for light, soil moisture and nutrients, eventually choking it to death. The fig's leaves are are dark green and leathery and shaped like large ovals. It has tiny flowers year round, but fruiting is heaviest after spring. The golden yellow figs are small, about 1/3-inch in diameter, sweet and juicy and are eaten readily by birds and mammals.
Strangler fig needs lots of sunlight, ideally more than six to eight hours of sun daily. Seeds can germinate in moist, sandy soil as well as in the nooks of larger tree branches or bark. As long as winter temperatures do not drop much below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the fig will grow quickly in the heat and summer rains, growing large, buttressing roots to support its wide-spreading and heavy branches. It is tolerant of drought once established and not a young seedling, but looks most lush and grows fastest when soil is moist, warm and rich in organic matter.
This fig species is winter hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 15. It tolerates only light, occasional frosts as in the warmest areas of Zone 9. It also is tolerant of hot and humid summer climates.