June 13, 2017
Growing sideways out of a palm tree about fifty feet in the air in the middle of Los Angeles, is a young fig tree, Ficus microcarpa. Often seen lining the streets in this neighborhood, these ficus trees, commonly known as Indian laurels, grow to substantial heights. Their sticky figs stain the surrounding sidewalks that are usually disrupted by the trees' extensive root systems, roots so intrusive that they can damage nearby walls and inconveniently work their way into plumbing pipes in search of water. They are not epiphytes, air plants that harmlessly attach themselves to other trees while gathering their nutrients from sun, rain, and air. Indian laurels need water, and lots of it.
So, what is going on here? Is it a parasite? How did it get there and how does it survive? These are questions I posed to NHMLA Head Gardener, Richard Hayden, who helped me to unravel the mystery of this unusual aerialist.
The ficus, based on its size, is approximately 10 to 20 years old, although its growth may have been stunted by its unusual location. The palm, a Canary Island palm, Phoenix canariensis, is a variety that was commonly planted in Los Angeles when this Mid City neighborhood was built. It stands in front of a house that was built in 1925, so it is likely 90-100 years old. At any rate, the palm was already very tall when our fig was planted, probably by a bird or squirrel.
Up, high in the palm, the crevice where the fig landed must have collected enough debris and moisture for the fig to sprout, thrive, and eventually, to send its extensive root system to work. Spreading around the outside of the palm tree, the roots have anchored the ficus sturdily to its perch. But apparently, hidden from view inside the trunk of the palm, the ficus roots in search of water found their way into the palm tree's vascular system. Much like working their way into plumbing pipes, the ficus roots have likely reached into the palm's complex bundles of vascular tissues, the phloem and xylem, that transport water and nutrients like countless tiny pipes up and down the long trunk of the tree.
The ficus must have found what it needed, for it now appears healthy and thriving and causing no apparent harm to the unusual host with which it shares its spectacular view.
I have marveled over these joined trees for years, theorizing with friends and neighbors about how they grew in this unique configuration. They are a wonder that many will pass right under without ever noticing. Have you found any natural oddities in your neighborhood? Send us your observations, and we will do our best to help you answer the hows and whys of these remarkable organisms.