Figs are an ancient fruit that stir strong emotions with many immigrant groups that settled to this country, but the love of this delectable fruit goes back in time much further than a few hundred years. One of the earliest records of any fruit eaten by people of the Middle East is the common fig (Ficus carica), the fig tree possibly originated in Northern Asia according to archeological fossil records. Some records state that Spanish missionaries brought it to the United States in 1520, others indicate that Cortez introduced the fig to Mexico, while North America did not receive them until 1790 . Plato documented that Greek athletes at Olympia were fed diets of figs to increase their running speed and overall strength, which could be considered the first documented case of performance enhancements. Figs were not only revered by Christians, Jews and Moslems of the Middle East. There are at least 1,000 species of ficus in the world, mostly in tropical countries, and they are considered sacred in most cultures.
Cooked figs were used as sweeteners in ancient times and this practice is still used in many third world countries. The figs contain over 50% sugar. Hybrid figs contain many tiny seeds on the interior of the fruit, similar in taste as those found in blueberries and strawberries. A fig fruit has a round tiny opening at the base of the fig called an eye. A tiny wasp flies into the interior of the fig and pollinates the tiny flowers lining the interior walls of the fig. These tiny seeds are not generally digested by the stomach and offer a great laxative effect to the elderly sedentary citizens. In harvesting the figs, it is important to pick the fruit from the tree, when it is completely mature, usually when it sags, droops, and changes color. If the figs are taken from the tree prematurely, the sweetness declines, but more importantly, if the figs are removed in the premature state, a white milky fluid exudes from the stem, which is transferred to a person’s hands, the fluid can very irritating and should be washed away as quickly as possible.
There are many cold hardy varieties that can be grown in the Ohio area; some of the more common names you might be familiar with are Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Celeste, LSU Gold, LSU Purple, and Magnolia. A couple of varieties that I am currently growing are Sal, and Sal Corleone, which originated from Sicily. But I must warn you, once you start to grow figs, you will crave additional varieties with different shapes, color, texture, and definitely taste. You will find white and yellow figs, green figs, and purple to black figs, the specific taste will vary with your local soil type, nutrient level, and weather conditions.
Fig leaves are eight to ten inches long with three or five rounded lobes. Plants are dioecious, either male or female. The sexual parts of the flower are encased inside the inflated, teardrop shaped fruit that can be as much as three inches long. In nature, a tiny wasp picks up pollen from male flowers and enters the female flowers through a small hole at the end of the fig. After pollination the insect dies inside edible fig, an enzyme called ficin breaks down her carcass into protein. The fig basically digests the dead insect, making it a part of the resulting ripened fruit.
Most of the 700 or so fig cultivars are parthenocarpic and will set fruit even without the benefit of pollination. In mild climates, most figs fruit twice a year. The first flush of flowers is born on year old branches and form what are known as “breba” figs. The main fig crop though is produced on new growth and forms later in the summer. So, even if plants freeze to the ground during winter, figs can still produce a crop. In areas with short growing seasons it may be advisable to remove any breba fruit that form because the main crop will not begin forming until the first crop matures.
The figs have many uses, such as drying the figs to be ground as a coffee substitute. In India the leaves are picked immediately after harvesting the figs so they can be used as fodder. The seeds can also be collected for extracting oil which is used for cooking or as a lubricant. Figs are also dried and ground to produce a brown sugar substitute. The white milky substance can also be collected and used for cheese making, or as a meat tenderizer. So you can see that the fig is a very versatile fruit, but most importantly a very tasty fruit that has been handed down generation to generation unlike any other fruit.
I have talked with European immigrants that speak of their parents and grandparents hand carrying fig cuttings from the old country, with tears in their eyes. Their smiles brimming from ear to ear, while speaking fondly of their loved ones and the struggles they faced to get here. But as their family member’s fade away over time, they relive each memory when they look at the fig tree or taste the soft sweet flesh of the fruit. So I am trying my best to collect as many specialty figs, by specialty I mean that each variety has a special story about the family and the way that the fig came to be at this location, if I can garner enough of the specialty fruits then I plan to write a small ebook depicting care for the plant, recipes, but most importantly to document the stories that the owners have provided to me.