How to grow instant fig trees to restore rain forests in Costa Rica

CCSD scientist Leighton Reid and Lyon Arboretum director Rakan Zahawi write about giant fig tree cuttings: how to make them and why some grow better than others.

Choosing the right species to include in a restoration project is a hard choice, but in the economy of nature, some species earn a bigger ROI than others. For example, Pacific sea otters maintain kelp forests by eating sea urchins, and wolves in Yellowstone National Park allow aspen groves to regenerate by scaring away tree-munching elk. These vital creatures are called “keystone species” because they hold ecosystems together, much like the keystone in an arch.

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A keystone and three keystone species. (A) This small keystone holds up an arch in the Shoenberg Temperate House at Missouri Botanical Garden. (B) Sea otters are keystone predators in kelp forests. Photo by Marshal Hedin CC-BY 2.0. (C) Gray Wolves are keystone terrestrial predators. Photo by Gary Kramer USFWS CC-BY-NC 2.0. (D) A keystone fig tree feeding a Knobbed Hornbill in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman CC BY-SA 3.0.

Plants can be keystone species too. Around the world there are about 800 species of fig trees, and they hold tropical forests together by providing food for a wide array of animals. On any given day, the busiest tree in a rain forest is likely to be a fig tree with fruits. Monkeys, birds, bats, and others gather at fig trees to eat, and in the process, they deposit seeds of other plant species that they have been carrying in their guts. This chain of events, repeated day after day, often turns the area beneath a fig tree into a hotspot of plant diversity.

A few years ago, we had an idea to plant keystone fig trees in young forests in Costa Rica. We wanted the figs to grow as fast as they could, so instead of planting seedlings, we planted cuttings – big ones. With help from our local collaborator, Juan Abel Rosales, we cut dozens of twelve foot-long branches from eight species of fig trees. We stripped off all of their leaves to keep them from drying out, and then we planted our figs trees in shallow holes.

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Rakan Zahawi (delighted!) poses with a three year-old fig stake.

To our delight, many of the fig trees grew!

The ones that did the best came from a special group, the subgenus Urostigma. Many figs in this group have a unique life strategy. They begin their lives in the top of a tree when their tiny seeds are deposited on a branch by a bird or some other animal. As they grow in the treetop, they send long roots down to the ground, and these roots harden and fuse together, forming a lattice-like trunk. Over time, these figs kill their host trees by taking most of the water, nutrients, and light. They also keep the host tree from growing outwards, giving them the nickname “strangler figs”. Maybe the ability to transform a flimsy, dangling root into a solid trunk is related to these figs being able to grow from cuttings.

To find out how well our planted fig cuttings might survive over the long-term, we also tracked down some fig cuttings that we had planted in 2004. We were happy to learn that out of the trees that survived for their first three years of life, all of them were still thriving a decade later.

Full disclosure: planting large cuttings is not a new idea.  Farmers in many parts of the tropics plant trees this way to create ‘living fences’ – with all of the normal fixings like gates and barbed wire, but with a row of living trees instead of dead posts. The advantages for farmers are many – their fences don’t rot and fall apart (that happens quickly in the tropics); the trees provide shade for cattle; they have a constant source of new fence posts (by cutting off a limb); and in some cases they can feed the young shoots to livestock.

Big cuttings have big benefits for restoration too. Not only are planted trees already several feet tall, you also get to skip the pricey nursery phase, and, most excitingly, cuttings have a tendency to fruit quickly.

Some of our young fig trees are now making fruit, but we will have to wait a bit longer to see whether they start attracting more big animals and whether those animals carry more tree seeds into our young forests. For now, we can say that others who are interested in growing keystone figs for forest restoration may have the best luck by working with the stranglers.

For more information, please take a look at our open access paper on this project in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation and prior blog posts here, here, and here.

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How to grow an instant fig tree. (A) Remove a long, thin branch segment from an adult tree. The red arrow shows a cut branch. (B) Strip the cuttings of their leaves to keep them from drying out, then carefully transport cuttings so as not to damage cortical tissue. Here, cuttings are padded by a foam mattress. (C) Remove the bark from a ring on the cutting to promote root growth. Here, a ring is being cut about 20 cm (8 in) above the base so that it will be just below the soil surface when planted. (D) Dig a shallow hole and plant the cutting. Be sure that the cutting is firmly planted to prevent it from toppling, but take care not to compact the soil too much around its roots. Photos by Rakan Zahawi.

 

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Fig Stakes: Shoreline Restoration for a Costa más Rica

Andres Santana is the graduate program coordinator at the Organization for Tropical Studies. During a recent fieldtrip in southern Costa Rica, he and CCSD restoration ecologist Leighton Reid compared notes on using fig stakes for ecological restoration.

Tropical beaches are many things to many people. To plants, beaches are hot, sandy, and salty – complicating their restoration.

Costa Rica has 1228 km (763 mi) of coast line – including 1016 km on the Pacific side and 212 km on the Caribbean. Along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, the beach forms the natural edge of the dry forest. Farther south the adjacent forest is more humid. Giant trees, 40 m or more in height, grow right up to the high tide mark, particularly along the Caribbean.

But as with so many tropical ecosystems, Costa Rica’s coastal forests have been subject to human impacts. Many shoreline forests were cleared for cattle ranching, and exotic grasses were introduced as forage. Some of these grasses are fierce competitors and prevent tree seedlings from establishing, even long after the pastures have been abandoned.

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Playa Hermosa, before (left) and after (right) planting 2-m long cuttings of a coastal fig species (Ficus goldmannii).

In 2009, a small non-profit organization, Costas Verdes, was formed to restore coastal forests along degraded shorelines, particularly wildlife refuges. The restoration work was initially challenging; tree seedlings were hard to establish along the coast because of the harsh environment – high temperatures and salinity and lack of freshwater were among the most significant obstacles. Not to mention the invasive cattle forage grasses.

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Coastal restoration at Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa, a surfing destination on the Central Pacific coast, was among the most heavily deforested project sites. This area, part of a wetland and river estuary, was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1998. By 2009, very little forest had naturally regenerated. This led Costas Verdes to implement a restoration project at this beach. Planting plots were established where invasive grass was removed. In other areas, grasses left intact, as a comparison. It quickly became evident that tree seedlings were outcompeted by the grass. Those in the cleared plots grew better, but they still faced the other coastal habitat challenges.

Some native trees are resistant to hot substrates and high salinity, but these species were not available in tree nurseries, most of which focused on ornamental species. This meant that seedlings needed to come from locally collected and germinated seeds. We realized that this would take time to get going. Tree seedlings under 50 cm rarely survive, even if they have the proper coastal adaptations.

To accelerate the restoration, we decided to use tree cuttings rather than growing seedlings from seed. A colleague suggested Ficus goldmannii as a candidate species, so in 2011 we conducted a planting trial. We planted 225 2-m long cuttings. Of these, 195 (87%) survived their first year. By the second year all 195 survivors had become established and were quickly providing canopy cover and lowering the temperature of the sand.

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An established fig stake with a dense canopy. Note the weak, patchy grass below it.

Once fig stakes created some canopy cover, we brought in other tree species – mostly from the coastal tree nursery that we created. Shade from the fig canopy also began to inhibit the invasive grasses, which require high sunlight to photosynthesize efficiently. Reduced competition with these grasses allowed other tree seedling species to survive.

In this instance Ficus cuttings turned out to be useful in promoting restoration. We have since used cuttings for other plots with similar success.

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Coastal trees and shrubs growing below established fig cuttings at Playa Hermosa.