Once upon a time, a long time ago, back when there were classified ads in the newspaper and people read those ads, my mother saw an ad for fig trees in Wilmington. “Hmmm,” Elaine thought. “If he can grow figs in Wilmington, so can I.” Definitely a competitive streak in the family.
Elaine and my youngest brother, Matt, drove to Wilmington to find this gentleman (using a map and my mother’s knowledge of Wilmington) who had fig trees growing in his back yard. “Here they are,” he said. “Which one would you like?” They picked out a tree, dug it up, and brought it back. This happened 1978 or so. This fig tree is still with us, a variety called Celeste, small, very sweet, and delicious.
And that was the first fig tree. My mother, of course, is not alone in loving figs. Figs have commanded a dedication and following that borders on the cult edge of devotion. Fig fossils are dated to about 9400 BCE in the Jordan River valley—about 1000 years before evidence of wheat or barley cultivation, and the first evidence of agriculture. Highly prized as a delicacy and honored in many religious traditions as an important symbol of peace, fertility, and prosperity, figs occupy a special place in our hearts.
Fig trees followed the routes of exploration from the middle East, spreading throughout Greece (Aristotle and Theophrastus both weighed in on figs) to Turkey (world’s largest producer of figs today), all of the Roman Empire, Afghanistan, Portugal, India, China, and England. And the Spanish first brought figs to California in 1520. Not only did people take fig trees with them to plant in whichever newly conquered or trading area, they were compelled to tell everyone that they did.
The Italians in the 19th century get much of the credit for bringing many varieties of figs to the United States, as they brought their beloved trees when they immigrated. We were the beneficiary of this trend. An older Italian gentleman saw my mother’s precious figs in the farm market; “Did you grow these?” “Yes, I did,” was the proud answer. “Well, I have figs that are much larger and very good.” A brief moment as they eyed each other. They agreed to trade cuttings. And that is how our second tree came to us, about 1982. Variety is Brown Turkey, still with us and growing well. Apparently, fig trees can live to be 100 years old or so; we will find out.
The challenge of growing figs in northern Delaware is winter. Figs grow best with mild winters—no snow, no freezing. The tree survives, but then it dies back to the ground, and the new growth does not have time to produce and ripen the figs before the nights start cooling off in September. We have spent many years dumping leaves on the trees, wrapping them, and trying to protect them from freezing temperatures and harsh winds.
Finally, we came up with our fig tunnel. We took cuttings from our fig trees and planted them all in a row, then covered them with a double layer of greenhouse sheeting. No additional heat, but just enough protection that the trees start leafing out early in spring and start producing an abundance of figs in the summer. Success!
We call figs fruit, but technically they are “syconium” and the flowers grow inside of the covering. Each little seed of a fig is part of its flower. Figs can be green, brown, purplish-black, black, or white. There are hundreds of varieties. Figs are full of calcium, iron, and fiber. Figs have been used medicinally as a diuretic or laxative. If you eat too many, look out!
But above all, figs are delicious. Sweet, juicy, wonderful as fresh eating, added to salads, grilled, paired with cheese, made into preserves. I think I am going to do something fancy with these beautiful figs, and then I wind up popping it in my mouth. Yep, still scrumptious. Maybe I need to check another one…
Thank you to my mother for teaching us to love figs and showing us that trying to grow a new thing is good for us!