A couple weeks ago in botany class, I had to write an essay about a plant that was used as a food. We could choose anything we wanted, as long as our professor hadn’t done a lecture on it already. His lectures focus on major ‘agribusiness’ types of foods like corn or wheat, so I chose to report on the fig. There’s a tree in the backyard, so it was a perfect choice. It contains a bit more commercial information than I usually write, but I had no choice about that aspect and actually learned a few things. Since I haven’t had a moment to do much here, I thought I would post the essay as a ‘ready made’ blog post as soon as I got my grade back. So here it is, my boring essay on the fig, which I did not have time to edit much for a website, so it may fit a bit awkwardly into this space – and yes I got an A 🙂
My earliest memory of figs has to do with cookies. Our family cookie jar always had a variety, but the one constant was a sleeve or two of delicious Fig Newtons. My mother thought they were healthy, so she kept them in stock and the family never really discussed what was in the middle of the cookie. In fact, it was not until I was well into my 30’s that I encountered a fig in its natural state, fresh from the tree and not in a cookie. They instantly became a favorite fruit and I eventually bought my own tree so I could eat them fresh. It still amuses me when I offer one right off the tree to a houseguest and they look at me funny because they have never had a fresh fig. Everyone thinks of the cookie first. So, what exactly is a fig and why don’t more people know more about this delicious and nutritious little fruit, apart from its cookie fame?
Figs actually have a long and rich history and a high profile in our collective mythology. The Bible alone mentions the fig fifty seven times, the most famous reference being of Adam and Eve using the leaves as clothing. It is one of only five fruits mentioned in the Quran, and the Ficus religiosa, or Holy Fig, is the tree believed to have adopted Buddha when he received enlightenment. A fig tree is said to have adopted the ancient Roman god, Mithras. This view of the fig tree as a “Great Mother” also figures into the mythology of the Babylonian Ishtar and the Gaulish gods, Dusii. Even Hindu mythology has a story of the “Cosmic Fig Tree” which has the power to grant wishes. Figs were used in love spells and fertility rituals, grown around the home for good luck and prosperity, and the leaves have been used in divination. Sixteenth century herbalist John Gerard credited the fig with curing tumors and “…roughnesse of the skinne, lepries, spreading sores, small pockes, measles, pushes, wheales, freckles, lentiles and scurvinesse of the body and face…” (Herbal or General History of Plants, 1597).
Botanically speaking, the common edible fig, or Ficus carica is of the:
* Subkingdom: Tracheobionta – making it a vascular plant
*Superdivision: Spermatophyta – making it a seed plant
*Division: Magnoliophyta – making it a flowering plant
*Class: Magnoliopsida – making it a Dicotyledon
*Subclass: Hamamelididae: meaning its flowers are often unisex
*Family: Moraceae or Mulberry – which makes it a relative of the rubber plant
The fruit of the Ficus carica is actually a Syconium, or the inverted inflorescence of the tree. This means it has no visible flowers and the flowers are female, so do not require pollination. The fruit is extremely fragile when ripe and must be consumed or processed immediately. I always use gloves when harvesting because the white sticky sap irritates the skin. The trees grow quickly and can be propagated by cuttings or grafting. They are also deciduous. In fact, my fig tree is always the first plant to lose its leaves in the winter. They thrive in areas with a long hot growing season and a mild winter. Their shallow root system makes it possible to grow them in containers, which can be moved indoors in cooler climate winters. In my experience, they are a relatively easy tree to care for. The only time I need to prune is when the tree gets too tall or develops ‘suckers.’ There are also few pests to worry about, so it is compatible with my organic gardening style. There are usually two crops per season. The first comes from the ‘embryo figs’ which are like leftover fruits from the season before, and the main summer crop, which lasts all summer and into the early fall.
My favorite part of eating the fruit is to break it open and study the insides first. It truly looks like an ‘inside out’ flower and the gritty seeds add a fun crunch to whatever dishes I decide to make. When I bought mine, it was no more than three feet tall and now, 6 years later, it stands about nine feet tall and produces more fruit than my family can eat. We like to slice the fig onto a square of puff pastry and bake it in the oven with a dab of goat cheese, honey, and walnuts. We also like to dip them in chocolate. Honestly, I think they are best right off the tree while standing in the garden. Mother Nature must agree with me because every year the ripe fruit attracts possums, rats, mockingbirds, and large yellow birds, which I believe are Hooded Orioles. If you want a fresh ripe fig for breakfast at my house, you have to get up earlier than the wildlife!
Because of the fragility of the fruit, they are not commonly found fresh in the grocery store. This may explain the fact that my guests have rarely had one before I offer. Most of the figs produced are processed and sold dried or canned to manufacturers of jams, jelly and preserves, cookies, trail mix, and energy bars. The fruit is generally the only part of the plant processed, although the leaves can be used for teas or yellow dyes. California produces about 40,000 tons of figs a year, 98% of all US production. Turkey grows about one fourth of the world’s figs, followed by Egypt, Greece, Iran, and Morocco.
Figs were originally cultivated in Asia Minor as early as 9400-9200 BC, based on fossilized fruit found in the Jordan Valley. This information means that the fig predates barley, wheat, and legumes in terms of early agriculture. They eventually spread through the Mediterranean areas and were brought to California in the 1700’s by Spanish missionary priests. Black Mission Figs get their name specifically from being planted at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, by Franciscan missionaries.
My mother may have been right about the nutritional value of the fig cookies kept in the family jar. Figs have a higher fiber content than any other common fruit, vegetable or nut. They have the highest level of calcium of all plant sources, higher even than cow’s milk, and their potassium content is 80% higher than a banana’s. They are also excellent sources of protein and iron. They contain flavonoids, which have value as antioxidants. Even the Roman scholar Pliny claimed that figs were a main component in slaves’ diets because of the high nutritional value and availability.
In recent years, I have noticed an increase of fresh figs on the menu in restaurants due to more chefs using local fresh foods. I find this trend exciting now that I have a tree of my own for inspiration. It is a delicious, interesting, and versatile fruit. The more I learn of its history and nutritional value, the more I look for ways to serve it and to share it with friends. Sometimes, this backfires because I have initiated so many fig fans that my harvest gets smaller every year as people arrive with empty bags in hand.
Well, that’s the end of it. A fairly enjoyable essay to write since the parameters of the assignment included personal experience as well as mythology and folklore, which are among my main interests regarding the plant world. I deleted the bibliography, but if you’d like to know where all the info on commercial food plants can be found, just ask me. There was so much more information about figs, but I had to limit my paper to a certain size – I was amazed at how many fig types there were and how they were all a bit different. At a certain point I could have written a book! Speaking of school and books…I’m off to attend class as soon I can find my sneakers. I think today’s lecture is on plants used as psychoactive drugs. For some reason, I have this feeling there will be a few more students in attendance than there were last Thursday, when the lecture was on plants used for aspirin and birth control pills!