August 24, 2017

Who Gives a Fig? Well, I Do

Ficus carica 'Chicago Hardy' - fig

Janine Pineo Photo | Ficus carica ‘Chicago Hardy’ – fig

• By Janine Pineo •

Figgy pudding has a certain ring to it.

Not that I’m hankering for figgy pudding; who knows what’s in it? (OK, you can stop chortling; I became wary about harmless-sounding food when I learned about haggis.)

No, I’ve been humming the figgy pudding line since summer, when I ate my first fresh fig. It transported me to some ancient villa in the Mediterranean where an azure sea melds with the sky. When my imagination came careening back to Maine, I wondered if I could grow figs, because if they tasted that good from the store, just imagine a fresh one from the garden.

In a word, no. Unless Santa plopped a greenhouse out in the yard during the wee hours Friday morning, I won’t be growing figs any time soon. But that doesn’t mean I can’t want one just the same.

In my search for the plant’s suitability, I discovered not only its shortcomings — disliking the cold and sometimes needing a special wasp for pollination — but its strengths. Quite frankly, the fig is mighty interesting.

Figs are of the genus Ficus in the mulberry family. The common fig, Ficus carica, is native to the area from Asiatic Turkey to northern India. In most of the Mediterranean, where fig seedlings grow wild, the fig is called “poor man’s food” because of its widespread use both fresh and dried.

Figs were among the earliest of cultivated fruit trees, with the Greeks allegedly acquiring theirs from Caria, an ancient region in southwest Asia Minor that flourished in the fourth to second century B.C. Caria is even part of the common fig’s Latin name, F. carica.

Figs became a staple among the Greeks and their use spread throughout the Mediterranean.

With about 800 varieties of figs throughout the world, there have been a few problems keeping the names straight. Adding to the problem are imports: When a fig variety is brought to another country, the name is usually changed.

Californians must have decided no one would eat certain figs unless some part of California was in the name, so Dotatto of Italy became Kadota and Lob Injur of Smyrna evolved into Calimyrna. But California isn’t the only culprit in the name game: the Italian San Piero fig has a multitude of monikers: Negro Largo in England, Aubique Noire in France, and San Pedro Black, Brown Turkey and Black Spanish in California.

The Calimyrna fig was the variety I had fresh this summer and have since found with the dried fruit at Bangor area supermarkets. What surprised me most was how much a fresh fig tasted like, well, a fig, but more subtle. I found them to be a great accompaniment to toast, spreading just like jam. Dried figs taste more like fig-bar filling. And all those bitsy seeds inside are the same in the fresh and dried, adding a crunchy little snap.

If you’re looking for a good source of calcium, eat a fig. It also is a significant source of phosphorus and iron.

Figs aren’t hard to grow and multiply easily because established plants produce suckers. Because of that, many figs have a bushy shape with several trunks. Pruning keeps suckers to a minimum if a single-trunk tree is desired.

Figs can grow from 3 to 39 feet tall, although the bush size is best if you plan to harvest all of the fruit. Some fig varieties are suitable for container growing, which means if you have an area that maintains about a 40-degree temperature all winter, you can grow figs — providing you’ve the strength to move the pot, dirt and all.

Most figs need a chilling period to go dormant, but for figs, chill means between 32 and 45 degrees. Hence the need for a protected spot in a climate like Maine’s. The dormant plant doesn’t need sunlight, so a greenhouse isn’t really necessary, just a building with a 40-degree temperature. The plants can be cut back every year, although this may slow or stop the growth of fruit.

If all this tempts you to consider a fig, look for varieties such as those carried by One Green World ( www.onegreenworld.com). Small varieties such as Negronne and Petite Negra are recommended for containers and are self-pollinating.

Since I don’t have a protected area that would be the winter home for a fig tree, I decided Santa could bring me another tree I’d longed for.

I could just picture a monkey puzzle tree, like the ones I’d read about in novels in high school. I’d even heard about one in an old movie, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” but didn’t see it because Mrs. Muir chopped down the ghost captain’s prize tree. As the stories have it, monkey puzzle saplings were carried home by those daring men who sailed the seven seas more than a century ago.

I finally saw a monkey puzzle tree earlier this year while I was wandering around the flower show in Boston. I cooed over it, touched it, and made sure my co-worker traveling with me saw this rare and wondrous sight.

And a sight it is. The leaves are rigid and overlapping, with needlelike points that spiral around the branch. As the plant grows, it forms a prickly tangle that discourages animals from attempting to climb the tree.

The monkey puzzle tree also is called the Chile pine and is known botanically as Araucaria araucana. It’s an evergreen conifer native to the Andes of South America, where it can grow 150 feet tall. It’s valued for its timber and its edible nut.

But the monkey puzzle is not for me. It’s hardy only to Zone 6.

I wonder how rugged a sequoia is.

First published in the Bangor Daily News  in December 1998.