Friday, 19 March 2010

Fig Facts

Want to find out more about figs? There are at least two things you can do (apart from spending the evening trawling the internet not knowing if you found a fact or a fallacy).

The first is to keep reading (and get a taste of this delicious subject). The second is to book your seat for our Fig Talk & Walk, on this Saturday (20 March), 2-4 pm, at the Maiden Theatre, in the Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For the latter, ring 9231 8304 or 9231 8134.

So to a tasting plate of fourteen fascinating fig facts, partly from my own reading and partly from the wonderful notes that Kate Symons has helped prepared for the Talk & Walk by
Jim Nichol and Carol Style:

1. Fig may have been the first domesticated plant in the world. Fig fruits were found by archaeologists excavating the Neolithic village of Gilgal, near Jericho, which was last occupied 11,400 years ago. The fruits were sterile, and once soft and edible, so presumed to be from plants domesticated some years earlier (sterile plants can only be propagated by humans). Wild barley and oats were present, but cereals were domesticated a thousand years later.

2. There are lots of figs in Sydney. The Director of the Botanic Gardens between 1848 and 1896 (a massive 48 years!), Charles Moore, was mad on figs, planting and encouraging their planting throughout New South Wales. There are more than 500 fig trees growing in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain. About 140 of these are Moreton Bay Figs (native to the hills outside Sydney and up the coast to Queensland), with a similar number Port Jackson Figs (native locally). Of the 40 species you’ll find in the Gardens and elsewhere in the city, eight are Australian natives (out of about 40 Australian species in total).

3. Buddha meditated under a fig tree (Ficus religiosa, the Bo Tree) for six years.

4. Roman soldiers and slaves ate lots of figs, fresh and dry.
5. Figs are used medicinally. They can be used for a soothing tea (leaves), relieving diarrhoea and bleeding (leaves & bark), and preventing gum disease (roots).

6. The Mayans boiled the latex to make bouncing balls for sport.

7. In New Guinea the larger leaves are used to carry food.

8. Many Aboriginal people in Australia use figs. They apply the sap of one species to treat ringworm, the pulverised roots of another to paralyse fish, and bathe in water infused with fig wood to cure diarrhoea. They also use bark to make rope and sandpaper fig leaves to finish off spears and boomerangs.

9. The flower structure (a syconium) is 'inside-out'. The flowers line the inside of a fleshy structure with a hole at one end.

10. The common Domestic Fig (Ficus carica) is sterile. However most species depend upon wasps to pollinate the flowers and then produce fertile fruits. Typically the wasp visits the male syconium – called a 'caprifig' (Latin for ‘goat fig’ because only the goats will eat them) – before heading to a female one where it lays eggs in special female ‘gall’ flowers. It’s thought the flower ovary stimulates the wasp to release its eggs. There are also flowers in the syconium not attractive to egg laying, and these are fertilised and produce seed. At least this is a short-hand summary of a very complicated process!

11. The roots of most figs are extensive, aggressive and destructive, but shallow in the soil.
12. The form of Moreton Bay Fig growing on Lord Howe Island (and I’ve mentioned this before in my blog) can cover a hectare of forest with 10 or more trunks.
13. In the Bible, the sycamore tree climbed by Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax collector, was mostly like a fig (the Syc-o-more Fig in fact).
And finally, according to Read in Royal Horticultural Society magazine, The Garden (October 2008: 673-675)...
14. Aristotle adored figs and DH Lawrence lusted after them.

Image: Some of Director Moore's figs in the Royal Botanic Gardens.


Jim said...

1. Trees are certainly where the early domestication action was; cf. almonds in the Middle East c. 19k years ago, Canarium in PNG perhaps c. 14k years ago. Even today you can see evidence of 'in situ domestication' of Pandanus in PNG - trees with soft-shelled nuts are preferentially tended and guarded where they grow in the forest.


7. check out the PNG highland Ficus dammaropsis, also know as the 'dinner plate fig'.

13. Buddha may have tried to meditate a fig tree into submission, but according to the Bible, one upset Jesus, and he cursed it and it died. One upset me once; I cursed it and nothing happened. So I chopped it down (I think there is a parable about that too).


15. The fibrous bark of Ficus is pounded and used in the Pacific Islands to make tapa cloth.

15a. Not only does Ficus tinctoria's bark yield tapa cloth, its fruit yields a dye that is used to print patterns on the cloth.

17. (also 4a) Imported dried Greek figs taste better than imported dried Turkish figs, IMO :) But none of them compare to one fresh off the tree, that is if the birds have left any... :(

18. Experimentation since childhood has shown that it *is* possible to eat too many figs.

19. Opuntia ficus-indica is neither Indian nor a fig. And it does not taste anywhere near a good as even imported Greek or Turkish dried figs.

20. The fig that one does not give one of is not actually even a plant at all.

Tim Entwisle said...

Very nice! Of course 14 facts was for alliteration so you've ruined that...

Didn't know that about almonds but makes sense.

Interested in the slightly more subjective 'fact' about Greek figs. I find that even Turkish figs they vary throughout the year. I look for the sugar coated ones as a sign of better taste but maybe I should look for a Made in Greece label. Fresh figs better? Sometimes...particularly lightly fried with brown sugar and butter.

BTW, our media release for the walk and talks was headed 'Royal Botanic Gardens gives a Fig'.