Figs are probably the first agricultural products grown in human history. It is a member of the “ficus” family and is native to Turkey, North-West India and the Mediterranean region. Figs were also a common food source to the Romans. From the 19th century onwards, it was grown in areas including Northern Europe and the new World. The fig is now widely grown throughout the temperate world, both for its fruit and as an ornamental plant.
The common fig (ficus carica) is a species of flowering plant in the genus ficus, from the family Moraceae, known as the common fig. Figs have a thin, leather-like skin which, depending on the type, can be black, purple, green or yellow. The fruits contain flesh with a scattering of black, edible seeds. Although commonly referred to as a fruit, the fig is actually the infructescence or scion of a tree, known as a “false fruit” or a “multiple fruit” in which the seeds and flavours are borne. It grows in areas with standing- or running water and grows well in valleys of the rivers and ravines. It has a strong need of water that is extracted from the ground. The fig tree cools the environment in hot places, creating a fresh habitat for many animals that take shelter in its shade in times of intense heat. The most productive and oldest mountain fig trees are located in the Zihad Mountains, where they are able to survive temperatures of - 40˚C!
Figs have a varied culinary use. It can be eaten fresh or dried, and can be used for jam-making. Most commercial products will be in dried or otherwise processed forms, since ripe figs do not transport well. An amazing feature is that figs have the highest overall mineral content of all common fruits. It is mostly eaten out-of-hand and has a delicate sweetness, with a subtle contrast of crunchy seeds and soft flesh.
The influence of the fig has even permeated our culture. In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Adam and Eve clad themselves in fig leaves, after having eaten the “forbidden fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Depictions of fig leaves have long been used to cover the genitals of nude figures in paintings and sculptures. The book Deuteronomy specifies the fig as one of the Seven Species, describing the fertility of the land of Canaan. It is a set of seven plants indigenous to the Middle East that together can provide food all year round. In the New Testament there is a story of Jesus finding a fig tree when he was hungry. The biblical quote “each man under his own fig tree” has been used to denote peace and prosperity. It was commonly quoted to refer to the life that would be led by settlers in the American West, and was used by Theodor Herzl in his depiction of the feature Jewish Homelands. George Washington in 1790 extended the metaphor to denote the equality of all Americans, regardless of faith.
The influence of the fig tree also extends to the writings in the Qur’an and Hinduism. In Greek mythology the god Apollo sends a crow to collect water for him. He finds the fig tree and waits for the figs to ripen. In Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” once a woman boasts about the “curriculum” of initiation rites she went through to become an adult woman. Figs were associated with femininity, owing to the appearance of the inside of the fruit. Since the flower of the fig is invisible, there are various idioms related to it in many languages of the world. The influence of the fig even influenced the poetry of many languages.
Up to quite recently, every garden in South Africa had a least one fig tree, apart from a lemon tree. Many childhood memories revolve around stealing figs from neighbours and being served green fig conserve as a special treat. Yes, the fig tree is an integral part of our South African culture.