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.
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.
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.