The Common Fig (Ficus carica) is a large shrub or small tree native to southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region (Turkey east to Afghanistan). It grows to a height of 3-10 m tall, with smooth grey bark. The leaves are deciduous, 12-25 cm long and 10-18 cm across, and deeply lobed with three or five lobes. The fruit is the well-known fig, 3-5 cm long, green ripening purple.
Cultivation and uses
An argument can be made that the edible fig is one of the first plants that was cultivated by humans. Literally thosands of varieties, most unnamed, have been developed or come into existance as human migration brought the fig to many places outside its natural range. It has been an important food crop for thousands of years, and was also thought to be highly benificial in the diet. The Common Fig is widely grown for its edible fruit, grown throughout its native area, and also the rest of the Mediterranean region and other areas of the world with a similar climate, including Australia, Chile, South Africa, and California, Oregon, Texas, and Washington in the United States.
Figs can be eaten fresh or dried, and used in jam-making. Most commercial production is as dried or otherwise processed forms, since the ripe fruit does not transport well, and once picked does not keep well.
Cultural & literary aspects
In the book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve clad themselves with fig leaves after eating the "Forbidden fruit" from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Likewise, fig leaves, or depictions of fig leaves, have long been used to cover the genitals of nude figures in painting and sculpture. Often these fig leaves were added by art collectors or exhibitors long after the original work was completed. The use of the fig leaf as a protector of modesty or shield of some kind has entered the language.
Figs in History
Figs appear in the earliest recorded history. When Cato advocated the conquest of Carthage, he used as his crowning argument the advantage of acquiring fruits as glorious as the North African figs, specimens of which he pulled from his toga as exhibits in the Roman Senate. These fruits have become so popular in America that many varieties - purplish, brownish and greenish-are grown in profusion.
Of the three members of the Moraceae family, the fig has spread most widely. It was first recorded in the tablets of Lagash in Sumer (2738-2371) BC and has since appeared in the recorded history from Egypt to Greece, where it was a staple food of both rich and poor. The fig was such a staple food that Egyptian armies are recorded as having cut down the figs and vines of their enemies, and whole baskets of figs have been discovered among the tomb offerings of dynastic kings. Homer wrote of figs when he described the orchard of Alcinous, visited by Ulysses, which featured figs, olives, pomegranates, apples and pears. The poet Alexis of Thuria in the 4th century celebrated the fare of the average Greek which included "that God-given inheritance of our mother country, darling of my heart, a dried fig." Cleopatra ended her life with an asp brought to her in a basket of figs.
The fig probably originated in Asia Minor, and has been highly regarded from the earliest times as a major contributor to the diets of many countries. Figs were one of the crops that became known in China during the T'ang dynasty which rose to power in the 700's BC. Its importance in Hellenic culture and economic life is second only that that of the grape and the olive.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) records several stories about fig trees in Rome. He asserts that a sacred fig tree grows in the Roman Forum. Alluding to the myth that Rome was founded by the twins, Romulus and Remus, who suckled on a she-wolf, Pliny tells us that, "This tree is known as Ruminalis because the she-wolf was discovered beneath it giving her teats (rumis in Latin) to the infant boys."Another fig tree grows in the Forum where a chasm had opened up. Soothsayers had predicted that only by throwing Rome's greatest treasure into the chasm, would it be filled. Marcus Curtius, mounted on his noble steed, asserted that he would fill the hole with the greatest treasures - virtue, a sense of duty, and his own death. He leapt into the hole and the earth closed around him. According to legend a self-seeded fig tree sprouted here.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, the fig was brought to England by Cardinal Pole, a few years before Cortez introduced the tree to Mexico. Fig trees reached North America in about 1790.