As most religious books attest, the fig is a heavenly fruit, especially the ones that grow in the Aegean region of Turkey. The fig is native to Turkey and the Middle East where it has been sought out in the wild and cultivated since ancient times. Turkey is the number one producer of figs in the world.
Ficus carica, ‘the common fig’ or just ‘the fig’ is a species of flowering plant in the genus Ficus, from the family Moraceae. Today it is widely grown throughout the temperate world, both for its fruit and as an ornamental plant.
The fig is a deciduous tree or large shrub with smooth white bark, growing to a height of 3-7 meters. Its fragrant leaves are 12–25 cm long and 10–18 cm across, and deeply lobed with three or five lobes. It is a dioecious plant meaning the female and the male parts are on separate plants.
Leaves and the immature fruit of the fig
The fruit of the plant is also called fig. There are very many cultivars of the fig and each is particular. I am going to talk about the fig I consider the most tasty, the yellow lob (sarı lop) from Aydın, Turkey. Turkey has been exporting figs since Ottoman times and the port of the Aegean region where the best figs grow was the port of Izmir which used to be known to the western world as Symrna, the city founded during the Archaic Period of Greece (800 BC – 480 BC). This led to the ‘Sarı lop’ figs being known as ‘lob of Symrna’ which then were called Izmir figs in Turkey as well. Actually, back in those days Aydın was the capital of a wider province that included Izmir and the sarı lop grew around Aydın. I’ve read in an article dated 2007 that the Aydın Chamber of Commerce had this special fig registered as Aydın fig that year and Aydın now has the patent for the best fig.
What we think of as the fruit is actually the flower of the fig. Called a syconium, it is a fleshy receptacle lined by numerous unisexual flowers on the inside. It is referred to as the false fruit in which the flowers and seeds are borne. The fruit is 3-5 cm long, with a green skin, ripening to yellow green in the lob. There are also light green and purple figs. The fruit of the lob is rounded and bigger than other figs. The Ficus carica has a milky sap that runs when the stems or the leaves of the tree are broken.
Some figs have both the male and the female fruit on the same tree but with the lob the male and the female are separate trees. The female requires pollination by a kind of wasp (Blastophaga grossorum) of the superfamily Chalcidoidea that can only be found in the Mediterranean region (in the 1900s they were imported to California). The following is a quote from Wikipedia but to truly understand the grueling process one would need to research it in detail: "The fertilized female wasp enters the fig through the scion, which is a tiny hole, the ostiole, in the crown. She crawls on the inflorescence inside the fig and pollinates some of the female flowers. She lays her eggs inside some of the flowers and dies. After weeks of development in their galls (plant structures formed as their own microhabitats), the male wasps emerge before females through holes they produce by chewing the galls. The male wasps then fertilize the females by depositing semen in the hole in the gall. The males later return to the females and enlarge the holes to enable the females to emerge. Then some males enlarge holes in the scion, which enables females to disperse after collecting pollen from the developed male flowers. Females have a short time (48 hours) to find another fig tree with receptive scions to spread the pollen, assist the tree in reproduction, and lay their own eggs to start a new cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_fig)". The wasps stay inside the fig, and with the seeds add to the crunch.
The fig flowers in March to April and the pollination takes place around June. The pollination of the fig is referred to as caprification. The word comes from the Latin caprificus which means wild fig or the fruit of the wild fig. Pollination by caprificus became ‘caprificare’ and caprification. Ficus carica v. caprificus is the male of the Ficus carica. Usually, the practice is to plant one male tree for about 200 female trees.
Fig has long been cultivated in Anatolia to be consumed domestically or to be exported in the dried form. With the increased ease of transportation fresh figs are being exported more and more.
The roots of the fig are strong and invasive. The fig can easily grow out of walls and stone. If a fig tree is planted near homes it can cause damage to the foundation. This has led to the coining of an expression, ‘planting a fig on the hearth’ which means to cause a household or family to suffer an unprosperous destiny or to hinder someone’s desired objective from coming true.
Photograph: Mehmet Özçakır
In Ottoman times jam making was popular. There were 60 or more varieties of jam including eggplant, walnut and fig jams. No self-respecting housewife would ever neglect making her own jams and marmalades. Offering a spoonful of jam to a guest before coffee was practiced in every fine home. There are old families in Istanbul who still adhere to this tradition. Fig jam is made from the buds of the male fig tree called ‘iğlek’ in Turkish. Jam is also important breakfast fare.
As a child I had the pleasure of climbing and eating figs right off the fig tree. I still remember the smell, the sap and the feel of the tree, its leaves and fruit. You cannot bite into the fruit before pealing it first. The wait makes the first bite even tastier. These days in Canada we can only get California figs sometimes called Calimnyra.