The Common Fig, Ficus carica, Fruit, Flower or Carnivore?

The Common Fig, Ficus carica, unwelcome bounty!

I originally started writing about the common fig, Ficus carica, because of my annual battle with it. Our neighbor’s fig tree leans over the fence onto our yard and rains its bounty of figs onto our vegetable garden every year.  Unfortunately, neither I nor my husband or daughter eat figs. I find them too sweet, preferring fruit with a more tangy taste. Every year I spend hours cleaning up semi-rotten figs after they have smashed their way through our tomato plants before embedding themselves, like small, sticky bombs, into the mulched paths. Then the clouds of fruit flies follow. It is not one of my favorite gardening moments in the year.

Coming to terms with the common fig.

Even though I don’t like to eat figs I do feel guilty that I am allowing this food source to go to waste. I ask friends and neighbors to come and pick but to date no one has taken me up on the offer. In an effort to come to terms with this dilemma I started researching the common fig. Maybe knowing more about the plant would help me change my attitude and even motivate me to eat some of them or make more of an effort to pass them on to others at least.

I have illustrated the common fig several times for the Digging In gardening column of the Washington Post. Both times I used my neighbor’s tree for reference. I love drawing botanical illustrations, regardless of the subject, especially when I can use a live specimen, and there is no shortage of live specimens of fig in my garden!! I feel I owe this tree something seeing as it has helped me out in the past.

The common fig, a fascinating story.

Once again I start researching a plant and find myself drawn into a long and intriguing story that brings me all the way back to Neolithic times and the first farmers. By coincidence I am reading a book at the moment that has spurred on my research- The Fruit Hunters, A Story of  Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession. This book by Adam Leith Gollner is a great read and even if you have only the slimmest interest in plants you will find it full of great stories to edify and entertain.

Too good a story for just one blog entry.

The story of the common fig, Ficus carica, is a complex and multi-faceted one that merits a book or indeed a series of books. There are two aspects of the fig’s story that have delighted me and sent my imagination into over-drive.

1. The reproductive cycle of the fig and its pollination strategies.

2. The first farmers (Neolithic) who domesticated the fig.

For this reason I’m writing two blogs on the subject starting with the reproductive cycle of the fig and its pollination story.

A fruit that is not a fruit!

I should write ‘false fruit’ or ‘multiple fruit’ when referring to the fig because what we eat is in fact the flower or inflorescence (an arrangement of multiple flowers.) The fig ‘fruit’ is a flower turned inside out: its juicy, red interior made up of lots of individual flowers and seeds growing together. The pollinator, a small female fig wasp that depends totally on the fig for its life cycle, must enter through a small opening in the fig, loosing her antennae and wings en route, to lay her eggs on the female fig flowers.

Fig tree pollination-well, sometimes?

Before all you fig lovers start spitting out your figs let me reassure you. Figs have several ways of producing fruits and most of the varieties in our gardens (Adriatic, Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, and Celeste) are self-fertilized i.e. parthenocarpically. This means that they do not need pollination to produce their fruit.

Carnivorous figs?

The fig varieties that are pollinated by female wasps (e.g. Calimyrna, Marabout, and Zidi) consume the wasp after she has done her job laying her eggs and pollinating the flowers (Does this make the fig a carnivore?) When these eggs mature into female and male wasps the males (who are wingless) mate with the females and chew a tunnel through the fruit creating an opening through which the female wasps can escape. This suggests to me that the wasps may have left the fruit to find new fruits to pollinate before the fig is eaten but one account I read said that we eat the wasp’s eggs with the fruit- extra protein for us all?

Great nutrition- keep eating your figs.

I hope my account of the coevolution of the fig and fig wasp and their symbiotic relationship doesn’t put all you fig lovers off your figs, but rather fills you with the wonder and awe that nature continues to inspire in me? Who needs science fiction when we have nature all around us. I do eat dried figs and now that I’ve learned what a nutritious food it is, I plan to eat more. According to Wikipedia, figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and fiber and USDA research on the Mission variety found that dried figs are richest in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium and vitamin K, relative to human needs. They also contain many antioxidants.  So keep eating your figs and maybe I’ll figure out a way to dry some of my neighbor’s next year.

Aislinn Adams

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