Matapalo

After a couple of hours hiking uphill and going through a couple of mudslides along the way on a trail near the biological station in Monteverde, we finally came across a “Matapalo,” otherwise known as the tree-killer. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but this name refers to a plant species of the genus Ficus, our beloved fig tree, where humans and a wealth of other animals, such as birds, monkeys, bats, peccaries and rodents, would routinely seek and devour its nutritious and sweet fruits. But there you have it, fig trees, which are often scattered across the lowlands of Costa Rica and Panama, are stranglers that quickly overshadow their hosts with sun-thirsty leaves while simultaneously dropping aerial, vinelike roots as they grow.

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Unlike many other species, the Ficus has not been cleared away by deforestation, mainly because their lumber is of poor quality and using them for firewood makes little sense and profit. If anything, these trees are kept for their expansive, umbrella-like crowns as they provide shade for the fatigued rancher and cattle. By not investing in a massive trunk, fig trees have a competitive edge over other forest trees because its energy is now invested in growing as fast as it can towards the upper reaches of the forest canopy, towards direct sunlight- a commodity among plants in the Tropics. It is also worth noting that matapalos do not tap the nutrients of its host directly, like parasitic plants do. DSCF1076 copyRather, they use their hosts as structural support for growing upwards (it’s been said that in the Mayan ruin of Yucatan, one can find matapalos growing over stelae and temples). It is the pressure exerted by the mass of aerial roots that takes away the host’s ability to transport nutrients up and then, indefinitely killing them and leaving them to rot. The outcome for the fig tree is a cavity in its twisted trunk full of nooks and crannies, worthy enough battle scars, I say, for generally taking the title of the largest tree in the forest.

And of course, with each hole, each crack, there’s an opportunity. Every niche, every crevice in this tree is teaming with life, where bees, wasps, spiders, birds, geckos, anoles, you name it, prosper and build their homes. So while it’s true that the matapalo has indeed killed its host, its structural nature has enabled a civilization of complex species interactions worth admiring (and for the ecologist, hours worth investigating!).

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And if it wasn’t for the fig tree, us fellow humans wouldn’t have such a fun time climbing such things! It was certainly the best tree-climbing experience I ever had. When I got to the top of this magnificent fig tree and looked down, noting out loud that I might fall, Grace smiles and tells me no I won’t. It’s true—the holes of life are supporting me, opening up for me to venture through them.

Austen climbing a matapalo The height of Matapalo