A Brief History of Figs

A Brief History of Figs

By Jeniffer Faydenko, Assistant Produce Manager, Co-op Owner

A few facts about figs:

  • There are over 750 known species of figs in the world.
  • Almost every species of fig tree has its own distinct species of fig wasp to pollinate it.
  • By producing fruit year round, fig trees are the foundation of many rain forests.
  • Figs are high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper.
  •  Leaves can be used medicinally for bug bites
  • 98% of the figs grown in the US come from California.
  • Used as the very first sweeteners.

Figs are interesting little fruits, if you can even call them that. Technically, it’s a syconium, meaning the flowers grow inside the fruit. That’s what gives them their unique taste and texture. The smoothness of the skin and the crunchiness of the seeds is a wonderful combination; plus they’re sweet and chewy. They come in a range of colors, from green to black, and are delicious fresh or dried. 

Figs are the edible fruit of the Ficus carica, a small tree in the Mulberry family. They are indigenous to western Asia, and made their way to the Mediterranean region through human migration. In 1769, the Spanish brought the first fig trees to the region that would later be called California. Historians can date figs to 5000 BCE, it is believed they are one of the first cultivated fruits.

Figs pair well with many cheeses!

Inside each fig there is a cluster of many flowers, and the seeds are contained in the stem. This unusual arrangement requires a specialized pollinator that’s adapted to navigate its way into the cluster. Each type has its own unique species of wasp to pollinate it too. The co-evolutionary  relationship between fig and wasp dates back over 65 million years. Without the help of the wasp, pollination and reproduction would not happen; the two need each other to survive.

How does this work? There is a tiny opening at the tip of the fig, called the ostiole, by this passage the queen gains access to the fig. Once inside, the queen goes from flower to flower laying her eggs and spreading the pollen she brought with her. After she lays her eggs she dies, and the fig then produces an enzyme that digests protein, allowing the queen to nourish the fig. When the eggs hatch, the male and female wasps assume their roles. The males hatch first to mate with their sisters while the females collect pollen. After the males tunnel their way out, then die, the female follows and goes on to the next fig, to pollinate as a queen. The males spend their whole lifecycle inside a single fruit. I guess it’s a good thing that figs produce an enzyme that digests protein, and can be used as a meat tenderizer!

Before making their way to the Americas, in ancient Greece dried figs were the better part of a daily diet for both rich and poor alike. Ancient Olympians were even awarded figs for their athletic prowess, becoming the first Olympic medal. They believed figs had restorative powers. We now know that they’re high in fiber, calcium, potassium, and antioxidant vitamins A and K. In addition to being one of the oldest cultivated fruits, figs also have an ancient and mythical way about them. For example, some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple (it is the most mentioned plant in the Old and New Testaments). In Greek mythology, Zeus turns into a fig tree during the war of the Titans. Buddhists believe that the Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree. Throughout history (and around the world) the fig tree has been a symbol of abundance, fertility, peace, and prosperity.

If you want to take part in the delicious tradition of consuming figs, don’t wait! Fig season only lasts until November (depending on the weather) so don’t miss out.

Click here for some tasty fig recipes.

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