OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Scientific name: Ficus carica
Explanation of scientific name:
the ancient Latin name for fig.
Ficus carica is one of over 800 species of tropical and subtropical figs in the genus Ficus. The genus is a diverse group of plants, with some of the species growing into large trees, while others trail and climb as vines. Besides the Common Fig, additional members of this genus that are well known would include the ornamental Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica), the Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina), the Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila), the Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycomorus), the Sacred Fig of India (Ficus religiosa) and the Giant Banyan Tree (Ficus benghalensis). The genus Ficus has been around for a long time. Seventy million year old fossils of the extinct species Ficus ceratops have been found in Montana. Figs belong to the Mulberry Family of plants (Moraceae), along with Mulberries, Breadfruit, and Osage Orange.
Ficus carica, henceforth referred to as fig, is a deciduous shrub or small tree that can grow up to 30 feet in height. The leaves are broad, often with deep lobes. Their texture is rough. A milky latex can be found throughout the plant, and even a minor injury results in its expression from the wound. It is irritating to the skin of many people. Figs, like all members of the genus Ficus, have an unusual means of reproduction. They are usually dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. What is commonly referred to as the fruit is actually a syconium, a receptacle folded over and enclosing the minute, unisexual flowers. The only opening to the outside is a pore at the end called an ostiole. The numerous tiny, true fruits that develop internally on female plants look like seeds, and are mistakenly called seeds by all but plant scientists. Some types of figs require cross pollination as a prerequisite to fruit development. This is accomplished by small fig wasps that enter through the ostiole of male syconia and pick up pollen that is delivered through the ostiole of female syconia to fertilize the eggs inside. The tiny crunchy nutlets in a Fig Newton cookie are these fruits. Other figs are parthenocarpic. They do not require pollination and the fruit develops without fertilization. No viable seeds are produced. These types are preferred by home gardeners. Another means of reproduction of figs is vegetative propagation, a type of cloning. Either softwood or hardwood stem cuttings readily develop roots, and will grow into exact copies of the plant from which the cuttings were taken. This technique is employed to propagate figs with desirable attributes, where no variation in the offspring is wanted.
Growing fig trees is certainly not a new endeavor for humans. Nine carbonized figs were recently unearthed in the early Neolithic village of Gilgal I in Israel. When scientists determined the age of these remains, they were surprised to learn that they were between 11,400 and 11,200 years old. Even more surprising, they could tell that the fruits were parthenocarpic. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they were gathered from the wild, since parthenocarpic figs were probably developed by selection for this unusual feature by early agriculturists. If this is true it pushes back the time of fruit cultivation by 5,000 years, and makes figs one of the first domesticated plants, perhaps predating wheat and rye cultivation.
In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve wore fig leaves to protect their modesty, but was the tempting fruit really an apple? At least some biblical scholars doubt it. True apples (Malus spp.) did not historically grow in the Middle East, and the word apple has been loosely applied to several fruits (think about pineapple and may apple). Clearly the fig was well known in the Middle East when Genesis was written. Perhaps a fig was the “forbidden fruit.”
native to the Middle East, figs have been brought around the world to just about
every conceivable habitat that could support their growth. Today there are
undoubtedly thousands of fig cultivars worldwide. Many are unnamed. Figs were
introduced into North America by early colonists. They were being grown in
Mexico by 1560, Virginia by 1669, and California by 1769. In the New York/New
Jersey metropolitan area, many immigrants from Mediterranean countries brought
small fig plants or cuttings from “the old country.” Untold numbers of fig trees
grow in urban and suburban backyards, carefully tended in many cases by the
descendents of the immigrants. They are commonly prized as family heirlooms,
connecting present generations to their ancestors. The author is amazed by the
diversity of these fig trees. Fruit size, shape, color, ripening time, and taste
seem unique to most of the trees he encounters .
Figs are an excellent addition to the diet. Ripe figs are filled with sugar, along with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They have some of the highest levels of calcium and fiber of any fruit. Medicinally, figs can act as a gentle laxative. Figs are enjoyed in many countries around the world. Over one million tons are harvested annually for fresh consumption, processing, and drying. Most commercial fig production is dried or processed since ripe figs have a short shelf life, and do not transport well. Figs can also be fermented into wine. Typically a fig tree produces two crops a year. The first crop is produced relatively early in the growing season. Known as the breva crop, it is the result of fruit development on the twigs of the previous growing season. It is usually a small crop. Here in New Jersey it ripens in July. The second crop is known as the main crop. It is the result of fruit development on the current year’s stems and is greater than the breva crop. Here in New Jersey it ripens in September.
Growing figs in a temperate climate can be challenging. The trees are tolerant of mild freezing temperatures, but extreme cold or wildly fluctuating winter temperatures can kill the trees back to the ground. These winter–damaged trees often resprout from the roots during the next growing season, but fruit production is severely reduced as the tree tends to allocate its resources to vegetative growth. Severe pruning, in general, tends to reduce yields the following year. In the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, trees in sheltered urban areas grow fine without winter protection, but in general the trees need some shielding from cold weather. Protection strategies range from wrapping the tree in some covering, to folding the entire tree down into an excavated trench and then burying it under soil or mulch. These techniques are labor intensive, and a severe winter or hungry rodents can result in injured trees. Some people grow the figs in large pots, and store them in a garage or a cool basement once the plants become dormant in autumn. They are returned to the outside in the spring. During the growing season, figs need warm temperatures (think Mediterranean) and full sun to produce a good crop. A well drained soil, augmented with limestone if it is acidic, and adequate fertilizer round out their requirements. In the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area disease and insect pests rarely trouble the trees, but birds and other critters relish the fruits.