Oldest Cultivated Plant facts about figs

My connection with figs began early.  I would have been no older than four when we moved to a little brick house in Greensboro, North Carolina, with an enclosed backyard.  On the other side of our fence was our neighbor’s fig tree.  Our neighbor was a spinster (as the term was applied in that era), and perhaps she did not realize the intense lure of the ripe fig to a small, active tomboy (as the term was applied in those days), a lure so powerful that I risked all to get to the prize.  I clambered up the fence, scrunched perilously across the top rail, and secured two or three of the delicate wonders that had attracted me with their sweet aroma and their glowing pink and brown hues, not to mention the shape—like a large teardrop, or something more mysteriously sensual that my little mind couldn’t identify.

I was well on my way through the second of these delicious forbidden treats, hunched on the ground in the overhanging shade of the tree’s large, deep green leaves, in my own backyard, when I heard a shout from the other side of the fence, and though I was only four, I knew the jig (or the fig) was up.  Hearing the imprecations of the spinster as she stridently strode up to her side of the fence, my mother slapped open the kitchen screen door and strode, perhaps a bit more cautiously, as the temper of our female neighbor was as yet unknown.

I vaguely recall that I was hauled up by the scruff of my shirt and whacked on the butt to satisfy the fig-hoarding harpy, but worse, I was made to release the remaining fig, a bit smushed for having been squeezed in my fist behind my back.  I had learned my lesson, though: FIGS GOOD.

I am of Mediterranean stock, with Jewish ancestry that reveals itself in what is called “olive” skin tone and dark curly hair.  I readily mixed with the short people of Andalusia when I lived there, and I feel a comfort zone with our local Hispanic population.  So perhaps the fig, that ancient fruit, called to me across the vapors of time.

Sadly, it would be many years before I again encountered figs ripe for the picking, but then they really were readily available, with no censorious neighbor lady or peace-seeking mater to chide me or prevent me eating my fill.  This was in southern Spain (see my Homestead.org article, Paradise), where figs, as it were, grow on trees.  Huge trees.  The paths between fincas (little terraced farms) are littered both with fallen figs and “fig feces” deposited by roaming animals, and always recognizable because of the seeds.  Dried figs often comprised the “tapas” in the local bars.  Good with coffee, good with brandy.  Noted for their chewy, fleshy skins and crunchy-wunchy tiny seeds.

facts about figs oldest cultivated plant

But wait!  Are those seeds?  Or dead insects?

Or both?

Answer: both.  Possibly.  Sometimes.

Actually, the fig is not a fruit at all, but a hollow flower turned in upon itself.  The never-blooming flowers of the plant known as Ficus are pollinated by highly adapted female gall wasps (yikes!) that crawl through a pinhole opening (called an “eye” or “ostiole”) at end of the bud, looking for somewhere to lay their eggs.  Figs can’t reproduce without this symbiotic (aka “co-evolutionary”) relationship.  In turn, the flowers (which will become the fruit and really never look anything like flowers) provide a roof and three squares for the wasp egglets.  Interestingly, if you don’t mind a little more information about the sex lives of wasps, the eggs inside the figs hatch, provoked by the gnawing of the male wasps who emerge first.  These anxious swains get one chance at immortality, inseminating the newborn females and then, in a last gentlemanly act, chewing a little wasp-mouth-sized hole in the soon-to-be-fig so the fertilized females can fly out and start their difficult but destined work again.

Does this provide further proof that a male works from son to son—but a female’s work is never done?

The “How Stuff Works” website explains it like this:

“If a female wasp enters a caprifig, she’ll find male flower parts that are perfectly shaped to hold the eggs she’ll eventually lay.  The eggs will grow into larvae, which will develop into male and female wasps.  After hatching, the blind, wingless male wasps will spend the remainder of their lives digging tunnels through the fig.  The female wasps then emerge through these tunnels and fly off to find a new fig—carrying precious pollen with them.  If a female fig wasp enters an edible fig, she eventually dies from exhaustion or starvation.  The female flower parts include a long stylus that hinders her attempts to lay her eggs.  She may die, but she succeeds in delivering the much-needed pollen first.  So a fig farmer winds up with caprifigs full of wasp eggs and edible figs full of seeds.”

All over the world, wherever there is an equable climate, this strange but efficient cycle repeats itself, allowing for different species of figs to spread, preserving plant diversity.

So, yes—there could be wasp leftovers in your figs.  Try not to think about it.  Or if you do, just think of it as protein.  Or think of this: the lovely pink meat of the fig is composed of hundreds of minuscule flower seeds that (along with the occasional dead wasp body that we are trying not to think about) give the fig-eating experience its “crunch.”  Eating seeds these days is considered very healthy—sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds—so add “fig seeds” to the list and keep on crunching.

Protein from wasp remnants is not the only nutritional property of figs.  I don’t recall learning this at age four, though it’s possible I did and mercifully repressed it, but most grown-ups know that figs are a laxative; in fact many laxatives are made from figs.  But this is not the only reason figs are prized.

Though small, figs pack quite a nutritional wallop.  Figs contain a lot of sugar, vitamins A and C, calcium, and magical enzymes.  They are sometimes grown for profit  and when they are, they are generally dried and boxed and sold as a specialty food, even a “health food.”  Drying figs, like drying other delicacies, increases the plant’s original potency.  Local figs in southern Spain were dried in the sun, usually protected from birds with some kind of screening, for family consumption.

Figs have been used as a coffee substitute.  Their stickiness lends them well to cakes; a common “trail food” is a paste of honey, figs, and almonds.

Boiled figs have been used as a topical medicine for skin ailments.  King Hezekiah was cured of a monster boil with figs and some pretty serious praying: “Then Isaiah told the king’s attendants to put on his boil a paste made of figs, and he would get well” (Holy Bible: Second Kings, 20:7).  The Bible records that after the cure, King Hezekiah lived another 15 years.

Some of the powers attributed to figs include that they are an anti-carcinogenic and an expectorant; they help prevent high blood pressure and, oddly enough—perhaps because of the payload of Vitamin A—macular degeneration; they increase bone density, lower cholesterol levels (because of the presence of the soluble fiber, pectin), and not surprisingly, promote digestive health (regularity).  Since figs are so prevalent all over the world—from China to Israel to Greece to Mayberry—and have been around so long, possibly since Day Eight of Creation (assuming Adam and Eve were created after God rested on the seventh day), the recipes and reports of their eff–fig-gacy (sorry, I couldn’t resist that) in various areas of health are almost too many to catalog.

The United Nations Environment Programme records that “A Wild Fig tree at Echo Caves, near Ohrigstad, Mpumalanga, South Africa has roots reaching 400 feet, making it the deepest a tree’s roots have penetrated.” There are hundreds of fig varieties in the tropical rainforests, each producing food at different times and keeping populations of critters from toucans to gibbons from starvation.  One of the most unusual fig varieties is the so-called “Strangler” that puts out a massive tangle of roots in the rainforest floor and provides such a lattice of leaves and branches above that between the roots and the shade, other plants are killed off.  However, the Strangler is a survivor and its fig production is heavy, sustaining animal life.  Sometimes the Strangler is the last thing standing when rainforests are cut down, since the thick sinewy roots are no good for logging.

facts about figs oldest cultivated plant

And as I learned at four, the fig tastes great.  The ripe fig is a symphony of subtle savor, tender and juicy with a thin skin, and quickly consumed.  It is, in fact, rather like eating a flower, which is what it is.  The dried fig is darkly sugary, with undertones of winter and overtones of syrupy strength.  Birds, dogs, goats, and nearly all wild furry critters adore figs and will eat them and contribute to their spread through figgy manure.

As can be imagined, figs are pretty easy to propagate, judging by their willingness to grow anywhere.  They came to the US with our many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants, especially Italians.  The website, SILive.com, recounts stories of the large fig trees that grow contentedly today in the crowded New York City Borough of Staten Island.  87-year-old Peter Pitrone’s father “immigrated to the U.S.  from his family’s small village of San Pier Niceto, west of Messina in Sicily” to work in the Pennsylvania coal mines.  He planted a fig tree.  When he moved to Staten Island, he took a cutting of that tree and planted it in his backyard, obviously trying to recreate his childhood Mediterranean garden with fruit trees and salad fixings.  When Peter got married, he took a cutting from the Staten Island tree and planted it in West Brighton.  When he moved from West Brighton to Bay Terrace, he got more cuttings (putting ten-inch “sticks” in glass containers and nursing them indoors) from what he calls the “mother tree” and began to grow cuttings on his balcony to share with neighbors.  Now the Pitrone family’s heirloom figs have traveled to New Jersey, to Boston, and even to Ohio.

When we lived on a little homestead in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, my husband Donnie and I “inherited” one fig tree and planted another.  It was he who correctly determined that fig trees should be planted against a south-facing wall, and should be shrouded in the winter.  But when we moved to the town of Mayberry, our planting space was cramped (less than ¼ acre) and taken up with mostly with flowers for aesthetics and tomatoes because everybody likes tomatoes but no one likes them as much as Donnie.  So it never occurred to me to demand a place for planting a fig tree.

But as time passed I began to languish for the smell of ripe figs and the beauty and utility of the tree—after all, aren’t its leaves the next best thing to underwear?  On that subject, I should say that the Bible never tells us what exact fruit was eaten by Adam and Eve that precipitated their expulsion from Eden, but some people believe it was not the apple, but the fig itself that was the guilty party.  We do know that there was an abundance of fig leaves to be had after The Fall, sufficient to sew into “aprons” to cover the humans’ sinful nakedness.  The fig leaf thus gained its euphemistic fame as something that hides shame.  Given the plant’s rather odd sexual activities, consorting with wasps and what-not, its leaves are perhaps meant to cover its own personal shame.

Because of the fig’s overtly sexual appearance, and I do not wish to draw any pictures here but my readers are presumably grown-ups and will know what I mean, it’s easy to imagine that figs were hanging around in the sensual first garden, and, like my neighbor’s tree long ago, caused a whole lot of sinning.

My case for fig trees fell on deaf ears, but I persisted, finally wearing down Donnie’s resistance by pointing out that, serendipitously, the jackleg carpenter/landscaper who formerly owned our house had poured a cement border alongside the driveway into which he had excised perfect circles about 1.5 feet in diameter, presumably for planting flowers.  These were languishing unused, a haven for weeds, considerably increasing the quantities of Round-up we were required to purchase.  The salient point, the clincher to my ceaseless yammering about fig trees, was the fact that the holes ran along the SOUTH side of our house, just what a fig tree needs for optimal sunlight.  Tada!

So I ordered two dwarf brown turkey fig trees, a common and reliable variety, from a reliable catalog source.  Though I had no romantic notion that these would arrive looking like trees, I was still rather dismayed to see that they were basically sticks with hanks of hair at one end.  I stuck them in the pre-made holes, hair side down, with a meditative thought and a mantra or two.  Meditation and figs kind of go together, after all: the Buddha received enlightenment in the shade of an ancient fig tree, also called a Bodhi or Bo tree, possibly a  kind of strangler fig, but since that is rather un-Buddhist nomenclature, it is generally referred to as a “Sacred Fig” (Ficus religiosa).  I too seek—but mainly I seek figs—though enlightenment would not be unwelcome.

That was in late March.  For the next two months I referred to the brown turkeys despondently as “those sticks.”  But one day late in the spring, as I was doing my twice-weekly inspection of the sticks, I saw that on each there was a little wart-like protuberance.  Not a terribly hopeful sign, but a sign nonetheless.  I retired for further meditation, and about a week later was rewarded with the sight of pale green patches at the tip of the now just slightly larger warts.  The warts became branches, the branches sprouted foliage, and by early June I saw the distinctive and gratifyingly vigorous leaves.

My fig trees are alive!  It is going to be a good year!

…Now it is autumn and my “trees” are still dwarves indeed, but covered with an abundance of full-sized leaves.  Still hoping for a fall crop, I am also, more realistically, planning to shroud them in cheesecloth when the weather hits the freezing mark for sustained periods, meaning, in Mayberry, midwinter.

I have high hopes for high trees and fluffy figs in the years to come.  The figs can be eaten ripe, of course, and one Mediterranean delicacy that I want to try is ripe figs wrapped in blue cheese and prosciutto and quickly fried in olive oil.  OMG!

Once I have gathered sufficient fruits, and had my fill of the ripe ones so beloved of my childhood self, I plan to throw together some fig preserves, really easier than preserving other fruits because the fig is so sweet and sticky that no additives are required:

Figgy Figs (Fig Preserves Recipe)

  • One pound of figs
  • One cup (or less) of sugar

Boil them together and put the heated goo into heated pint jars for canning as usual.  The resulting jam can be used to flavor and stretch fruit cakes or breads, or can simply be eaten on its own.

Remember: the fig is a combination flower, seed, and wasp.  Celebrate its holistic properties with your own personal mantra!


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