The Common Fig, Ficus carica, the First Cultivated Plant.

The story of the common fig, Ficus carica,  needs more than one blog.

I started writing about the common fig in my last blog- The common fig, Ficus carica, Fruit, Flower or Carnivore? As I uncovered its story I realized that it would take more than one blog to share its long and complex history.  I illustrated the common fig, Ficus carica, several times for the “Digging In” gardening column of the Washington Post. This week I post a botanical illustration of Ficus carica “Negronne” to illustrate this entry. This natural dwarf variety can be grown in containers and is particularly suited to the Pacific North West, where I live.

The common fig, Ficus carica, and the first farmers.

It seems everything I read currently brings me back to the first farmers. Recently while reading about the Burren region in the west of Ireland I learned how the first farmers impacted that environment, using only a simple axe as their main tool. Then, while researching the common fig, Ficus carica, for this blog, I discovered that it was probably the first plant cultivated by humans: predating the Neolithic farmers’ “eight founder crops” -einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, lentils, chickpeas, barley, flax, bitter vetch, and peas, Wikipedia– by many centuries.

Neolithic Farmers.

The Neolithic period (starting c. 9500 BCE) marks the beginning of farming and the common fig comes from the region where farming began, the Middle East. Common fig subfossils found in the Neolithic village of Gilgal 1, 13 Kilometers north of Jericho (present day West Bank,) date from 9400-9200 BCE.

Parthenocarpic figs and human selection.

This first fig crop was a parthenocarpic type i.e. the fruit is produced without pollination (see my last blog for more on this subject.) This means that these fig plants were “cultivars” i.e. plants selected and propagated from cuttings by humans rather than grown from seed. We have been growing and eating figs, as well as introducing them to different parts of the world, for over 12,000 years. Parthenocarpic varieties helped this spread because they don’t need a local insect to pollinate the plants in order to produce fruit.

How much do I know about the food I eat?

Reading about the common fig makes me realize how little I know about the food I eat. I’m not talking about which farm my food comes from, whether it is organic or conventional, what variety it is, or how far it has traveled to reach the grocery shop’s shelf. Rather, I am talking about food’s cultural history. I wonder what it means that we have been eating figs since the end of the last ice age? What a long human-plant relationship this is. Have we co-evolved together?

Plant or human selection?

In my last blog I also wrote about the high nutritional value of figs, especially in relation to our human needs. Is this just a happy coincidence? Science may explain the selection and success of figs as a food crop through a mixture of human interference and natural selection but I wonder if those first farmers choose the fig knowing how nutritional it was to eat or just because it tasted good? Or, could it be, as Michael Pollan suggests in his book The Botany of Desire, that the common fig chose us to guarantee its survival?

Agriculture- from Neolithic times to today.

Agriculture has come a long way since Neolithic times. The highly intensive form that we now practice, with its heavy dependence on chemicals, limited selection of crops grown in vast monocultures and enormous use of fossil fuels and other natural resources to produce the crops, is a far cry from those early days. I imagine those first farmers, mostly women undoubtedly, scratching their heads in amazement. Learning about the common fig’s story raises my awareness of our dependence on nature to sustain us: the long and critical relationship we humans have with the plant kingdom- the source of most of our food- and the role this small fruit has played.

Aislinn Adams

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