Do You Give a Fig about Figs?

“I don’t give a fig about….”

Ah, but you would if you grew them! Then you’d give figs your full attention.

Toshiba Digital CameraHowever, yes, if you lived during the time of Shakespeare, you might be quite comfortable using that phrase, “I don’t care a fig….,” as it was a common expression. It came from the Spanish word Fico (fig) which had come to mean a particular gesture. By putting your thumb between your first and second fingers and thrusting it at someone, you could send a message of contempt.

But the gesture precedes Shakespeare’s time. The word sycophant (brown-noser or bootlicker) comes from the Greek word sykophantes, which meant “one who shows the fig,” a vulgar gesture.

The dark side of fig history? Perhaps

Ah, but the bright side!

In late summer, my fig tree becomes the center of my yard and garden. The ripening plum and pear trees, quite beautiful themselves, bow down to the fig. And why not? They’re relatively rare. You’re probably more familiar with dried figs or fig newtons. Few people I know have ever tasted a fig–and when presented with the opportunity, they tend to take a step back and change the subject.

But consider this bit of fig history. Fossil records of figs date back to about 9300 B.C. They were likely one of the first plants cultivated by humans, in the area that is Egypt today. Ancient writings, including the Bible, often refer to fig trees. Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree, a large sacred fig tree. The Greeks passed laws forbidding the export of their highest quality figs. The Romans? They considered figs to be sacred.

I hate to admit how long it took me to develop a taste for them, and now they’re my favorite fruit of all my trees. Figs contain potassium (which helps lower blood pressure), dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, copper, manganese, and pantothenic acid.

I’ve seen figures that indicate there are over 700 varieties of fig, or Ficus, trees. They like dry, sunny sites, so my tree thrives in its southern exposure. Able to tolerate seasonal drought, they’re found growing wild in the Middle East. Today California is one of the largest producers of figs, along with Turkey, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.

Deep-rooted and aggressive, fig trees are not recommended for use in urban areas. I occasionally panic when I notice my tree’s rapid growth. The last few years, the tree had escaped its cement block enclosure and was headed toward the drain field at a good clip. I spent quite a bit of time cutting it back last fall. This summer it produced its heaviest crop ever. Turns out that fruit sets on new growth, so when I cut it back so severely, it spurred fruit production. Family and friends couldn’t keep up with them, so I hung a “Figs for Sale” sign on the mailbox and sold about ten dozen.

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Unlike most other fruit trees, the blossom of this tree is internal–a particular wasp gains entry through a small hole in the fig in order to pollinate it.

I like them best just eaten raw, right off the tree, but my Fig Heaven cookbook (“70 Recipes for the World’s Most Luscious Fruit”) suggests all kinds of mouth-watering recipes, including “Cheese-filled Fresh Figs.”

Cover of "Fig Heaven: 70 Recipes for the ...

Cover via Amazon

Goat cheese pairs especially well with figs.

Besides being connected to an obscene gesture, fig trees have another dubious cultural distinction. The leaves of the trees, so critically shaped, often covered genitals in nude sculptures and paintings. They were often added long after the creation of the original art object to “protect” innocent viewers and their souls. But besides covering privates, those leaves do a good job of covering and protecting their fruit.

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One of William Shakespeare’s characters in Antony and Cleopatra exclaimed, “O excellent! I love long life better than figs.”



6 thoughts on “Do You Give a Fig about Figs?

  1. I finally got around to reading this…really good, Mary! Gave me several chuckles. Great imagery 😏

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

  2. Yes, Mary, Inquiring minds “would ” like to know your source(s)? Wonderfully written and informative. I can’t believe how many figs your tree produces. I have tasted both the light and dark variety of fresh figs, and I love them, But, they are so hard to get fresh. I wonder if a fig tree would grow on Mule Springs Farm?

    • Research? Just online reading, browsing gardening sites, etc.! I really think it’s worth a try for your Mule Springs Farm! You might be too cold–you get so much snow. Some of the varieties do better in cooler areas, so a topnotch nursery in your area could advise. Too bad they’re so invasive or one could fit in close to your house for some protection

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