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.

KeystoneSpecies

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.

FicWhat

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.

FigProduction

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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Reforesting with Figs

 Benjamin E. Smith is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University. He recently completed a field ecology course with the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica, where he worked with CCSD scientist Leighton Reid. When he’s not coring fig trees in Costa Rica, Benjamin studies plant-herbivore interactions in American chestnut.

It was my recent privilege to spend a week at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica where I learned about some amazing properties of fig trees.

The genus Ficus contains over 800 species, which can be found in the tropical to warm temperate regions throughout the world. Where they occur, figs are vital components of their local ecosystems because they provide high quality fruits for many animals. Animals attracted by the delicious figs often carry other plants’ seeds in their digestive tracks and subsequently deposit them below the fruiting fig tree. This can lead to patches of forest with especially high plant diversity.

FICOBT

Two individuals of Ficus obtusifolia demonstrating the strangler lifestyle (left) and the free-standing lifestyle (right). The individual on the left has overtaken one host tree and is reaching out to claim another. The individual on the right was planted (either by humans or birds) in a fence row.

Some fig species have the ability to resprout roots, branches, and leaves from broken limbs – an adaptation that would be useful in an ecosystem with frequent disturbances, like hurricanes or landslides. Rural people have been utilizing this incredible feat of nature to create living fences for hundreds of years; they simply cut branches from a tree and plant them. Plant a large enough branch, and you’ve got an instant tree.

Instant fruiting trees could be a practical tool for ecological restoration, and there is currently an experiment underway to test this idea. But not all fig species can resprout from cuttings, so in order for this tool to be useful outside of southern Costa Rica, it would be helpful to know which species will resprout and which will not.

FICCOL Stake

A healthy cutting of Ficus colubrinae. This instant tree was planted in May 2015.

Does wood density predict resprouting in figs?

We sought a way to determine whether a particular fig species would be able to resprout from a limb cutting before actually cutting apart large trees. This would mean only trees whose cuttings will survive would be used and trees that can’t resprout could be left undamaged.

We believed that wood density would be a good measure to figure this out. Wood density can tell you a lot about a tree’s life history strategy. Is it a hard tree that will resist snapping in a stiff breeze? Or is it a softer tree that might break, but then resprout?

To test this, we took core samples from seven fig species and headed to the lab. After a couple days of measurements, we had our data.

Methods

(A) OTS student Orlando Acevedo Charry extracts a core from a Ficus colubrinae. (B) Cores were cut into small pieces. We measured the mass of the water that each segment displaced to determine the wood’s green volume. (C) Next, samples were placed in a drying oven at 106° C for 24 hours. Finally, we measured the mass of the dried samples and divided by the green volume to determine wood density.

The fig species we tested turned out to have pretty similar wood densities. Also, the slight variations in wood density did not correlate with trees’ resprouting abilities. This initially came as a big disappointment, but after taking a second look at our data we started to see a trend that may actually be much cooler.

Results

Wood density was a poor predictor of resprouting capacity (measured by tallying fig cuttings that were planted in April-May 2015; Left), but strangler figs in the subgenus Urostigma performed much better than two free-standing species in subgenus Pharmacosycea.

Fig species come in a variety of forms. Some are rather conventional free-standing trees that grow from the ground up, but others start as seedlings high in the canopy of another tree and send roots down to the ground, gradually strangling their host. Still others are shrubs, climbers, and epiphytes. We found that stakes cut from strangling figs, the ones that initially rely on a host tree, were much more likely to resprout than stakes cut from free-standing fig species. If this holds true, no measurements will be needed in the future. People around the world may be able to tell if a tree will likely sprout from a cutting just by the way it grows.