I love trees. I loved climbing them as a kid, getting lost in the upper most branches looking down on unsuspecting parents that had crazy notions that I needed a bath. These same branches supporting my frame, also supported cool insect colonies, using the sugars as a food source, and cavities in the trunk for shelter. I was in awe of their size and the stateliness they could imbue on a landscape
Only later as I pursued a degree in plant physiology did I begin to understand the remarkable adaptability of these giants. Yielding when necessary to conditions too large even for them, with the single purpose of survival. Such is the case for the ubiquitous Ficus species. Whether growing contentedly in an undersized container in a freezing office in Minnesoto. To the massive specimens being treated royally at the Allerton Gardens in Poipu, proudly sending massive root systems in all directions. This species is a survivor.
There are approximately 850 species of Ficus but arguably the two most famous in Hawaii are Ficus religiosa, under which the Buddha found enlightenment, and Ficus macrophylla or as we know them on Kauai, as the ‘The Movie Star Trees’. Made famous in Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jurassic Park”. Few of my friends care when I point out that the Jurassic period was approximately 200 million years ago and the Ficus species at their most generous estimate is approximately 80 million years old. I was immediately rebuffed, where was my sense of cinematographic wonder? In the scene when the family approaches the prehistoric dinosaur eggs against a backdrop of those tree roots, it is film history. Show your respect.
The ‘movie stars’ of the Garden, of which there are four, are approximately 70 years old. They sit beside a tranquil Lawai stream in the gardens, with their roots reaching out in all directions encompassing an area larger than the size of their canopy. However here is the real dirt on these Hollywood stars. The Moreton Bay Fig is an aggressive species in the sub tropics. Its massive buttress roots travel far and wide killing surrounding trees two unique ways. The tree acts as an epiphyte, sending its branches down to intertwine around a tree and slowly, but inexorably choking it.
A second, equally deadly method of destroying the competition is found in the leaves of the tree. The tree produces a toxin in its leaves and as they fall and decompose it sends a natural herbicide into the soil profile killing all other plants.
With a tree this aggressive, why hasn’t it taken over the island? A plant with this many survival mechanisms could wreak havoc to native flora. This is all very true, however we lack an important ingredient needed for the spread of this tree. The Moreton Bay Fig can only be pollinated by the Australian fig wasp, Pleistodontes frogatti. Fortunately for us, the wasp was not introduced into Kauai. In fact, of the nearly 60 species of Ficus in the Hawaiian islands most require a specific wasp to pollinate the flowers. Without this important player in the life cycle, the tree can not spread readily.
One of the best things to do in Kauai is to take the tour hosted and managed by the National Tropical Botanical Garden and visit the trees. They are quite approachable and not stand offish, as most Hollywood stars who visit our island. Tours begin at 9 am daily and last approximately 2.5 hours. The cost per person is $45 for adults. The Gardens are located only minutes from our Kauai vacation rentals, just take a left on Lawai road from the Suites and you will see the entrance on the right.