Fig, CommonBotanical Name: Ficus Carica (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Urticaceae Part Used: Fruit.
Habitat: The Common Fig-tree provides the succulent fruit that in its fresh and dried state has been valued from the earliest days. It is indigenous to Persia, Asia Minor and Syria, but now is wild in most of the Mediterranean countries. It is cultivated in most warm and temperate climates and has been celebrated from the earliest times for the beauty of its foliage and for its 'sweetness and good fruit' (Judges ix. 2), there being frequent allusions to it in the Scriptures. The Greeks are said to have received it from Caria in Asia Minor - hence the specific name. Under Hellenic culture it was improved and Attic figs became celebrated in the East. It was one of the principal articles of sustenance among the Greeks, being largely used by the Spartans at their public table; and athletes fed almost entirely on figs, considering that they increased their strength and swiftness. To such an extent, indeed, were figs a part of the staple food of the people in ancient Greece that there was a law forbidding the exportation of the best fruit from their trees.
Figs were early introduced into Italy. Pliny gives details of no less than twentynine kinds known in his day, and specially praises those of Tarant and Caria and also those of Herculaneum. Dried Figs have been found in Pompeii in our days and in the wall-paintings of the buried city Figs are represented together with other fruits. Pliny states that homegrown Figs formed a large portion of the food of slaves, especially in the fresh state for agricultural workers.
The Fig plays an important part in Latin mythology. It was dedicated to Bacchus and employed in religious ceremonies. The wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus rested under a Fig tree, which was therefore held sacred by the Romans, and Ovid states that among the celebrations of the first day of the year by Romans, Figs were offered as presents. The inhabitants of Cyrene crowned themselves with wreaths of Figs when sacrificing to Saturn, holding him to be the discoverer of the fruit. Pliny speaks also of the Wild Fig, which is mentioned also in Homer, and further classical references to the Fig are to be found in Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Varro and Columella.
Description: Ficus Carica is a bush or small tree, rarely more than 18 to 20 feet high, with broad, rough, deciduous, deeply-lobed leaves in the cultivated varieties, though in wild forms the leaves are often almost entire.
Considered botanically, the Fig, as we eat it, is a very remarkable form of fruit. It is actually neither fruit nor flower, though partaking of both, being really a hollow, fleshy receptacle, enclosing a multitude of flowers, which never see the light, yet come to full perfection and ripen their seeds - a contrary method from the strawberry, in which the minute pistils are scattered over the exterior of the enlarged succulent receptacle. In the Fig, the inflorescence, or position of the flowers is concealed within the body of the 'fruit.' The Fig stands alone in this peculiar arrangement of its flowers. The edge of the pear-shaped receptacle curves inwards, so as to form a nearlyclosed cavity, bearing the numerous fertile and sterile flowers mingled on its surface, the male flowers mostly in the upper part of the cavity and generally few in number. As it ripens, the receptacle enlarges greatly and the numerous one-seeded fruits become embedded in it. The fruit of the wild kind never attains the succulence of the cultivated kinds. The Figs are borne in the axils of the leaves, singly.
Cultivation: The Fig is grown for its fresh fruit in all the milder parts of Europe, being cultivated in the Mediterranean countries, and in the United States of America. With protection in winter, it succeeds as far north as Pennsylvania. (Prof. Nancy Traill, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada points out.. "In some parts of Pennsylvania, people bury the trees. In Philadelphia, a mulch is necessary, and the fig is a "die-back" shrub. Ficus carica varieties have been grown in Southern Ontario for many years. Though by no means very much north of Pennsylvania, it is still further north. The figs need mulching, as in Philadelphia, and are die-back shrubs but they do produce very sweet fruit. Some that I have seen will grow back to about 10 or more feet in height, others about 6 or 7 feet, in a season. Some years the crop is quite heavy. People who bury their trees, as some still do, or give them the shelter of a house wall and some insulation, often have small trees, and these bear quite heavily.") It is said to have been introduced into England by the Romans, but was probably introduced from Italy early in the sixteenth century, when the Fig tree still growing in Lambeth Palace garden is said to have been planted.
The trees live to a great age, and along the southern coast of England bear fruit abundantly as standard trees, though in Scotland and many parts of England a south wall is indispensable for their successful cultivation out of doors. Old quarries are good situations for them. The roots are free from stagnant water and they are sheltered from cold, while exposed to a hot sun, which ripens the fruit perfectly. The trees also succeed well planted in a paved court against a building with a south aspect.
The best soil for a Fig border is a friable loam, not too rich, but well-drained; a chalky subsoil is congenial to the tree. To correct the tendency to over-luxuriance of growth, the roots should be confined within spaces surrounded by a wall enclosing an area of about a square yard. Grown as a standard, the tree needs very little pruning. When against a wall, a single stem should be trained to a height of a foot and a shoot be trained to either side - one to the right and the other to the left.
The principal part needing protection in the winter is the main stem, which is more tender than the young wood.
Fig trees are propagated by cuttings, which should be put into pots and placed in a gentle hot-bed. They may be obtained more speedily from layers, and these when rooted will form plants ready to bear fruit the first or second year after planting.
There are numerous varieties of Fig in cultivation, bearing fruit of various colours, from deep purple to yellow or nearly white.
The Fig produces naturally two sets of shoots and two crops of fruit in the season. The first shoots generally show young Figs in July and August but those in England rarely ripen and should therefore be rubbed off. The late midsummer shoots also put forth fruit buds which, however, do not develop till the following spring, ripening in late September and October, and these form the only crop of Figs on which the English gardener can depend.
There is sometimes a failure in the Fig crop, many immature receptacles dropping off in consequence of the pistils of the florets not having been duly fertilized by the pollen of the stamens. It is supposed that fertilization is caused naturally by the entry of insects through the very small orifice which remains open in the flowering Fig. Fig growers therefore adopt an artificial means of ensuring fertilization: a small feather is inserted and turned round in the internal cavity, the pollen thus being brushed against the pistils. This process is called 'Caprification,' from the Latin caprificus (a wild Fig), as the same result was originally obtained in the countries where the Fig grows wild, by placing branches of the Wild Fig in flower over the cultivated bushes, so that the pollen might be shaken out over the orifices of their receptacles, thus ensuring the development of the young fruit.
Most of our supplies of dried Figs come from Asia Minor, Spain, Malta and the South of France. When the fruits are ripe, they are collected and dried in the sun. 'Natural' Figs are those which are packed loose and retain to some extent their original shape. 'Pulled' Figs have been kneaded and pulled to make them supple; they are usually packed for exportation in small square or circular boxes the latter being termed 'drums' - and are considered to be the best variety. A few bay leaves are put upon the top of each box, to keep the fruit from being injured by a gnat which feeds on it and is very destructive. 'Pressed' Figs have been closely packed into boxes so that they are compressed into discs. Maltese Figs are very good, but those from Smyrna, which are thin-skinned and soft (the best kind known as 'Elemi'), are most valued. Greek Figs are thicker skinned, tougher and have less pulp.
Constituents: The chief constituent of Figs is dextrose, of which they contain about 50 per cent.
Uses: Figs have long been employed for their nutritive value and in both their fresh and dried state form a large part of the food of the natives of both Western Asia and Southern Europe.
A sort of cake made by mashing up inferior Figs serves in parts of the Greek Archipelago as a substitute for bread.
Alcohol is obtained from fermented Figs in some southern countries, and a kind of wine, still made from the ripe fruit, was known to the Ancients and is mentioned by Pliny under the name of Sycites.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Figs are used for their mild, laxative action, and are employed in the preparation of laxative confections and syrups, usually with senna and carminatives. It is considered that the laxative property resides in the saccharine juice of the fresh fruit and in the dried fruit is probably due to the indigestible seeds and skin. The three preparations of Fig of the British Pharmacopoeia are Syrup of Figs, a mild laxative, suitable for administration to children; Aromatie Syrup of Figs, Elixir of Figs, or Sweet Essence of Figs, an excellent laxative for children and delicate persons, is compounded of compound tincture of rhubarb, liquid extract of senna, compound spirit of orange, liquid extract of cascara and Syrup of Figs. The Compound Syrup of Figs is a stronger preparation, composed of liquid extract of senna, syrup of rhubarb and Syrup of Figs, and is more suitable for adults.
Figs are demulcent as well as nutritive. Demulcent decoctions are prepared from them and employed in the treatment of catarrhal affections of the nose and throat.
Roasted and split into two portions, the soft pulpy interior of Figs may be applied as emolient poultices to gumboils, dental abscesses and other circumscribed maturating tumours. They were used by Hezekiah as a remedy for boils 2,400 years ago (Isaiah xxxviii. 21).
The milky juice of the freshly-broken stalk of a Fig has been found to remove warts on the body. When applied, a slightly inflamed area appears round the wart, which then shrivels and falls off. The milky juice of the stems and leaves is very acrid and has been used in some countries for raising blisters.
The wood of the tree is porous and of little value, though a piece, saturated with oil and spread with emery, is in France a common substitute for a hone.
Green Fig Jam is excellent. Choose very juicy Figs. Take off the stalks, but do not peel them. Make a syrup of 1/2 lb. of sugar and a glass of water (1/2 pint) for each pound of fruit. Put the Figs into it and cook them till the syrup pearls. Boil a stick of cinnamon with them and remove it before pouring the jam into pots.
The Sycamore Fig (Ficus Sycamorus) is a tree of large size, with heart-shaped, somewhat mulberry-like leaves. It is a favourite tree in Egypt and Syria, being often planted along roads, deep shade being cast by its spreading branches. It bears a sweet, edible fruit, somewhat like that of the Common Fig, but produced in racemes, on the older branches. The Ancients, after soaking it in water, preserved it like the Common Fig. The porous wood is only fit for fuel.
Our northern Sycamore tree is in no way related to this Sycamore Fig, but has wrongly acquired its name, Prior says, through a mistake of the botanist Ruellius, who transferred the Greek name, Sycamoros, properly the name of the Wild Fig, to the great Maple.
'This mistake,' says Prior, 'arose perhaps from this tree, the great maple, being on account of the density of its foliage, used in the sacred dramas of the Middle Ages to represent the Fig tree into which Zaccheus climbed and that in which the Virgin Mary on her journey into Egypt had hidden herself and the infant Jesus to avoid the fury of Herod; a legend quoted by Stapel on Theophrastus and by Thevenot in his Voyage de Levant: "At Mathave is a large sycamore or Pharaoh's Fig, very old, but which bears fruit every year. They say that upon the Virgin passing that way with her son Jesus and being pursued by the people, this Fig tree opened to receive her and closed her in again, until the people had passed by and then opened again. The tree is still shown to travellers." ' (See Cowper's Apocryphal Gospels.)
See INDIARUBBER TREE. (note, no reference)