Plant Profile: The Fig

Words by
Georgina Reid
Images by
Daniel Shipp
| February 4, 2015

Figs (Ficus carica) are some of the best designed flowers I know. And they’re delicious. AND they’re in season. So, we’re writing about them. Read on for information about their botanical beauty, history, and growing tips.

Botany

The design of the fig flower and fruit is incredible. When you tear open a fig fruit, all those little dry-ish things in the centre are the flowers! The only way for these flowers to be pollinated is by insects, usually wasps, who enter the little hole at the base of the fruit, do their business, and move on to the next tree.

How about this for a juicy botanical explanation:

“The tight ostiolar enclosure at the apex of syconia makes figs highly pollinator-specific. When receptive to pollen, the ostiole slightly loosens, allowing the highly specialized wasps to enter through it. The wasps lose their wings in the process, and once inside they pollinate female flowers as they lay their eggs in some ovules, which then form galls. The wasps then die and larvae develop in the galls, while seeds develop in the pollinated flowers. 4–6 weeks after egg laying, the wingless males emerge, mate with the females still in their galls, and cut a tunnel out of the syconium. As the females emerge, they collect pollen from male flowers, which ripen later. After the wasps emerge, chemical changes in the fig follow as the fig develops into ‘fruit’ (thanks Wikipedia!)

It sounds a bit sexy, or is that just me?! My botany teacher back in the day called the fig an ‘invaginate’ inflorescence, because of the obvious inversion of the good stuff. Like another good thing I know of…

History

No one seems to knows for sure, but apparently the fig was originally indigenous to western Asia. It soon travelled to the Mediterranean and Middle East, distributed by its evolutionary friend, man. Some sources suggest it was one of the first cultivated food crops.

According to my friend Wikepedia, fossils of figs have been found in the Jordan Valley, dating from around 9400-9200 BC. This predates the domestication of wheat, barley and legumes, hence the suggestion that figs may be the first known instance of agriculture.

Figs have a rich cultural history, beginning way back in the most famous of (fictional?!) gardens, Eden. After Adam and Eve ate the apple (although some suggest it was a fig) they realised they were naked, so stitched together fig leaves to cover themselves. I’m not sure that was the smartest idea – fig leaves are rather scratchy…Ouch. Anyway, desperate times call for desperate measures.

In the Garden

So, growing ‘em. It’s pretty easy. Figs like it hot and dry. Think Tuscan hills – well drained soil, not much summer rain, and low humidity.

They love full sun and don’t mind living in a container, but like all plants, they’ll be happiest in ground.

Figs make good trees for small gardens as they will only get to around five meters high. They’re also deciduous, allowing precious sun through their canopy in winter.

Water young plants regularly until they’re established and prune them if required to ensure they will grow into a good shape (no crossing branches, well balanced structure etc).

Birds can be a problem with figs. They love their fruit too! Come late summer, when the fruits are hitting their peak, you may find yourself in a battle with the feathered ones for the fruit. Invest in a net or just move your office underneath the fig tree and eat them as they ripen. Beat the birds! YUM.

We’re not finished with the fig just yet – prepare yourself for a very delicious recipe next week involving figs, sweet potato, orange blossom water, fennel seed and labne. Its a Planthunter original and we reckon its rather delicious! Stay tuned…


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