The Strangler Fig

Ficus thonningii

Mlandege (Swahili), Kiumu (Kamba), Lutoto (Luhya), Pocho (Luo), Oreteti (Maasai), Mugumo (Mbeere and Meru).

A story from Karichota

One of our key destinations we reach as we explore the Mt. Kenya forest is the Burguret Bridge which takes us across a 10 metre stretch of (often) roaring water. Next to the bridge there are three trees leaning together, undermined by the rambunctious river. On the other side of the bank is the fruit-filled mukoi (Syzygium cordatum); on the near side a Mutarakwa (Juniperus procera) and a grand fig, the Ficus Thonningii wrapped around another cedar, the last vestiges of which are visible in the upper branches.

30 metres away there is a fully grown, stand alone Mugumu. Grandly bestriding the valley, bestowing its gifts on all our denizens.

The fig hosts a vast number of interesting and exciting guests throughout the year, the Baboons sit munching the fruits the whole day, while Colobus Monkeys perch above, masticating the delicious green leaves of the upper canopy. Throughout the fruiting season, grand flocks of noisy, Silvery-cheeked Hornbills grab, fling and swallow the figs; the collective name for a group of hornbills is a “party” – now I know why! If we are lucky, large groups of Hartlaub’s Turacos will also congregate, noticeable for their upward-spiraling paths through the branches. Red-fronted Parrots drop in on their morning safari westwards down the Burguret Valley. All of these generous visitors leave their dropping in the crooks of other tree species, thus beginning new generations of fig inhabitants.

Kikuyu people famously congregate under the Mugumu (makuyu) tree for consultation and decision making, as do many other peoples through Africa. Some members of Mijikenda cultures (with reference to the Mythology of the Broken Pot story) explain the location of the Kikuyu by saying they retraced their steps westwards from the Indian Ocean along the Tana River, enticed by the fruits of the Makuyu fig, until they reached the Murang’a area.

If we could go back to our own arrival at Karichota, we might wish to have planted more nearer the houses – though not too near as they can devour water pipes! The one we have planted in the ground has only grown 2 metres in 15 years. By contrast, the remnants of the fig wrapped around the lightning-stricken mutarakwa, have regrown into a full, 4 metre tree in less than a year. The fig is a highly successful parasite, yet in turn tolerates its own epiphytes; Cyrtochis arcuata (the moon orchid) flourishes on its larger branches accompanied by other forest epiphytes.

The fallen fig has become a generous host to the yellow oyster mushroom (Pleurotus citrinopileatus) and I am trying to learn how to gather the spore in order to encourage more of these to grow, and expand our culinary options…..