The origins of agriculture are contentious. Domesticated annual cereal crops may have been cultivated about 11,500 years ago. But Mordechai Kislev, an Israeli archaeobotanist, only reported evidence of domesticated figs in cultivation 11,400 years ago in 2005. Dried figs collected from a Neolithic village in the Lower Jordan Valley were analysed in partnership with the Israel Museum and Harvard University and reckoned to be a cultivated form. Pushing back the date and nature of the origins of agriculture is a big deal and wildly controversial. There are other explanations, and preferential collection and landscape management favouring wild, persistent female figs has been suggested as another interpretation of the evidence by Tim Denham at Monash University. In Greek mythology the interpretation is rather simpler: Demeter, the goddess of harvest (her Roman equivalent is Ceres) favoured Phytalos with the first fig tree for his hospitality.
The interpretation of the evidence is complicated by the peculiar biology of the fig. Most wild figs require a particular wasp for fertilisation. The female wasp forces her way into the fig through the opening (ostiole), often losing her antennae and wings in the process. Carrying pollen from her home in another fig she fertilises the female flowers inside the fig. She lays her eggs and dies. The young larvae mature through a pupal stage and on hatching, mate. The males die, while the females collect pollen and exit to fly to another fig. While there are figs such as brown turkey and white genoa that fruit without pollination
(parthenocarpic), the most highly regarded figs are those such as Smyrna that require fertilisation (or caprification). The improved flavour probably represents the oily seeds rather than the attendant wasp corpses and larvae. The supposedly cultivated figs identified by Kislev might be rare, parthenocarpic wild figs. (Other parthenocarpic ‘fruits’ developed without fertilisation include the pineapple and banana).
All of this goes on within the so-called ‘fruit’ – technically a ‘syconium’ (derived from the Greek sykos, a fig) – the tiny flowers and true fruits are enclosed within the syconium and are only apparent when you cut a fig in half. Understanding of the pollination processes goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Both Theophrastus (the ‘father of Botany’) and Pliny the Elder refer to caprification – an ancient horticultural practice where branches of male trees, bearing inedible syconia containing wasps and pollen-bearing male flowers are cut and hung in female trees to ensure fertilisation.
The cultural tradition associated with figs is certainly better known than the biology. The earliest story is of Adam & Eve covering their nakedness with fig leaves in the Garden of Eden. The virtues of the leaves in the Edenic story are in contrast to the familiar prurient interpretation of the fruit. D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Figs, explores this relationship in graphic detail. The etymological origins of ‘sycophant‘ derive from the ancient Greek sykos, referring to the fig and phanein, to show. While variously interpreted as deriving from the Athenian counterpart of the Roman delator, a public informer, perhaps
originating from those who collected taxes in the form of produce such as figs another view suggests sycophant derives from those who made their ‘fig’ available to others (while typically applied to women, the ‘fig’ also applied to men). The Greeks of Corinth apparently applied the term to Athenians with derision. Philosykos, from the ancient Greek, a lover of figs, is the name of a contemporary unisex perfume – the perfume’s originator is likely to prefer the connotations of Philosykos as an epithet for Plato and perhaps all Athenians rather than others that might be construed. The perfume proclaims a scent resplendent of, ‘the fig tree in all its glary: the freshness of fig leaves, the green fruit, the slightly milky sap, and the bark‘.
Pliny and Plutarch regale readers with Historical Anecdotes Connected with the Fig. Xerxes is reported as unwilling to eat imported figs from Attica, ‘... until he obtained possession of the land that bore them‘. Cato the Elder’s successful use of a fig to promote the Third Punic War famously illustrates the influence of this seemingly humble ‘fruit’, ‘Burning with a mortal hatred to Carthage, anxious too, for the safety of his posterity, and exclaiming at every sitting of the Senate that Carthage must be destroyed, Cato one day brought with him into the Senate-house a ripe fig, the produce of that country. … “I ask you,” said he, “when do you suppose, this fruit was plucked from the tree?” All being of opinion it had been but lately gathered, “- Know then”was his reply, “that this fig was plucked at Carthage but the day before yesterday – so near is the enemy to our walls.” It was immediately after this occurrence that the Third Punic War commenced in which Carthage was destroyed, though Cato had breathed his last, the year after this event.’
Cato’s demonstration underscores our knowledge that fresh figs aren’t fresh for long, and as figs are best eaten straight from the tree. It’s worth thinking about where you’re going to find room for one in your garden and ordering a tree to plant this winter. If you want to know more speak to your local nursery, check out the websites for specialist fruit tree nurseries such as Balhannah Nurseries and Perry’s Fruit & Nut Nursery or, ideally, join the Rare Fruit Society here. While figs might not be a rare fruit there are a vast range of varieties to prolong the season and extend the palate. The experience of the Rare Fruit Society’s members represents a remarkable resource. Once you have the tree they’re pretty tough and there’s no shortage of advice. Pruning for Fruit published by the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide is also invaluable.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 March 2012.