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Miracle Trees

March 25, 2012

Perhaps the biggest surprise I found in Havana was the enormous trees. Trees that had survived decades, even centuries, of deforestation, human poverty, and hurricanes. Monster trees thrust out of sidewalks and courtyards like something out of science fiction. The one above is a ceiba or kapok, whereas others are strangler fig. The ceiba is considered sacred for the orishas of santeria; supposedly the tree was adopted by African slaves as a substitute for the baobab they missed.  Every few years it produces seed pods full of kapok fiber.

The strangler fig (also called banyan) has an unusual life history. A seed lands in some dirt in the crook of an aging tree, where it germinates and sends roots down to the ground. As the parasitic tree grows, its foliage crowds out that of the “host” and its roots fuse together, constricting the host trunk. Eventually the host tree dies, leaving the huge bizarrely shaped fig tree. Strangler figs can even cover ancient buildings.

Why do trees evolve to grow so large, and so old? Probably because the larger the tree, the more seeds it produces, which carry the genes for longevity.  On the other hand, this does not explain why bamboo will grow for precisely 130 years, then flower and die. Long reproductive periods can prevent grazers from living to consume the seeds; but bamboo grows ten times longer than any grazer. It’s good to know there are still unanswered questions out there to employ plant ecologists.

What long-lived plants and animals do you find in your part of the world?

  1. Frank Caesar Branchini permalink
    March 25, 2012 5:55 pm

    What a great photo! We’ve seen bamiyans in Florida. They have them on the grounds of the RIngling Museum in Sarasota.

  2. March 25, 2012 10:38 pm

    Don’t know. The only way to date a scrub oak is to take a core of the basal burl and carbon date it. I suspect I’ve got millennia-old clones in a nearby canyon, but without both the C-14 dating and the genetics work, it’s going to be impossible to prove.

    Speaking of weirdness, you should really write about root grafts in oaks and stem grafts in strangler figs. It makes figuring out what an individual is more confusing than normal.

    • March 27, 2012 9:52 pm

      In most plants, I don’t think “individual” makes much sense at all. They can send off roots and shoots all over the place. Plus, most of them include “communities” of fungi.

      • March 27, 2012 11:10 pm

        Ah, but you can talk about ramets (physical individuals) and genets (genetic individuals) with plants. With oaks fusing roots, there can be multiple genets in one ramet. I’ve even seen it suggested as a method for parental care in plants. Strangler figs do the same thing, only with their stems.

        As for the rest, no large eukaryotic organism is a genet when you count all the bacteria around, but we talk about it anyway, for convenience.

  3. fari permalink
    March 27, 2012 4:08 pm

    I think you’d better take a trip to Iran.We have lots and lots of such species.

    • March 27, 2012 9:50 pm

      Yes, I would love to visit Iran–after I learn some of your language. I’m afraid at my age that will be quite a project.

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