Monday, July 7, 2014

It's fig season!

It looks like it’s going to be a bumper year for figs. When I peek beneath the lobed leaves of our ficus carica trees, I have visions of plenty. Dozens upon dozens of pear-shaped fruit dangle temptingly within reach.

One ripe LSU purple fig ready to pick 

Much as I’d like to pluck one early, I try to be patient. Biting into an unripe fig — like sampling an unripe banana — is not a pleasant experience. Figs taste best when left to ripen on the tree. A ripe fig is plump, juicy and sweet. When gently pressed, it has the give and take of soft flesh. Although still seedy, fig seeds are not nearly as obvious in the fresh fruit as they are in the dried version of this ancient food.

There are over 700 named varieties of figs.  All are filled with tiny edible seeds like in the four species shown here.  (image from

Fig trees have been around for ages. Fossils found in an early Neolithic village near the Palestinian West Bank city of Jericho suggest figs were one of the first cultivated foods, farmed at least 1,000 years before the domestication of wheat and rye. These semi-tropical plants play a prominent role in biblical stories and were considered sacred by Ancient Romans. The Ancient Greeks held figs in such esteem that the government permitted the export of only inferior fruit, thus securing the tastiest varieties for themselves.

Over time, fig cultivation spread throughout India, China, Africa and the Mediterranean. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought them to California in 1759 and by the late 1800s, these relatives of mulberry, breadfruit and jackfruit grew on more than 1,000 acres of farmland in the Sacramento Valley.

Today, 98 percent of all figs grown in the United States come from California. Of the 38,700 tons produced in California in 2012, all but 4,000 tons were turned into products like cookies (think: Fig Newtons), candies, jellies, pastes and assorted health care products. Only 10 percent of all figs are eaten in an unprocessed form, so it’s no wonder few Americans have ever had the pleasure of biting into a juicy ripe fruit.

Until I met my husband, I was one of those people. The only figs I grew up eating were the hard, dried variety. I remember tearing through the tough, leathery skin with my teeth to get to the sweet, sticky flavor within. While I liked the taste, I didn’t like the way seeds wedged themselves between my teeth, so I wasn’t disappointed that my mother only bought them once a year, during the holidays.

That changed when I married into a family where exotic foods were everyday fare. My husband Ralph grew up eating fresh figs and once we settled down, he decided we should grow our own. Unfortunately, the place we lived during that time was Cape Cod, not exactly an ideal fig-growing climate. Nonetheless, we planted trees and while I don’t remember ever having a substantial harvest, I recall with clarity all the effort my husband put into their care.

Every autumn, he’d loosen the soil around the roots just enough to tip the trees over onto their side. That in itself was quite the production. He’d then cover the supine plants with a thick layer of mulch to protect them from the cold, reversing the process in the spring.

Although I don't have any pictures of Ralph tipping over and mulching our trees on Cape Cod, the above photo from depicts the same process.  For more information about growing figs in cold climates check out their website.

Cold-weather concerns vanished when we moved to Florida. Fig trees thrive in Florida’s warm climate, and my fruit-loving husband took full advantage of that fact. He planted fig trees everywhere. Three large specimens are just outside our west-facing entry with several dozen more scattered around the property.

Not surprisingly, the tree that symbolizes abundance, fertility and sweetness is easy to grow and easy to propagate. Rooted cuttings produce fruit in just a couple years and, assuming nematode-resistant varieties are grown, they are fairly unbothered by pests or diseases. With our trees, the main obstacle we contend with is getting to the fruit before critters do. Squirrels, crows and wild turkeys are among the animals that like them, too.

Crow in a fig tree...

Crow with a fig

If you’ve never tasted a ripe fig, the perfect time to do so is now when fresh figs are available in groceries, farmer’s markets and at the occasional u-pick farm. There are many varieties to choose from and all are delicious. Try a fig or two, and discover a taste that has endured for ages.

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