Byzantine image of the parable of the fig tree.


Last July my niece called from her home in north Arkansas, "I am coming down for a few days. Are there any figs for preserves?" Sadly, my answer was negative, the fig trees around here had not recovered from the previous winter's record cold. The tradition in our family of making fig preserves was handed down to my mother from her mother and on to her daughter. I was delighted to know my sister's daughter carries on the tradition.

 Yesterday, April 4, 2022, I examined the backyard fig tree, planted over forty years ago from transplanted roots dug around another tree at my grandparent's place on the other side of the pasture. I wanted to see how well it was recovering from that unusually cold winter that killed it back to the roots. Last spring there were sprouts and this spring there are buds on several  sprouts.  When I bent over to inspect a bud I discovered a tiny green praying mantis sitting on the bud and munching on a hapless house fly. For no reason I can imagine, the mantis on the bud started me thinking of my long relationship with fig trees; that is, if one can have a relationship with fig trees.

The large backyard of the home I grew up in, a small Southern town, supported six pecan trees, a pomegranate tree, a jujube tree, and one large fig tree. The jujubes were inedible, and only an occasional pomegranate matured, but each summer my mother would make fig preserves from the bounty of the Turkey Fig tree. Something like a peck of figs would be boiled in sugar water, then each fig carefully placed on newspapers to dry before landing in pint jars and filled with the syrup.  After cooling the jars of figs would be stored on shelves in a pantry until fall. Not until Thanksgiving would a jar be opened. Then, along beside the turkey and dressing was a decorated china bowl holding fat golden brown, almost translucent, preserved figs, to be placed on hot buttered biscuits; a taste of summer sweetness and sunshine in late November.

Now back to childhood summer: After the canning was finished I was free to harvest, which required a step ladder, and peddle all the figs I could manage.  After filling an old tin bucket with figs I would weigh out a pound of figs on the kitchen scales and place them in brown paper bags. Next, I loaded the sacks onto the little red wagon, a hand-me-down from my older brother, and away the young peddler would go ...  knocking on neighborhood doors. Most of fig buyers were repeat customers; women wearing aprons would come to the front door and exchange two dimes for a sack of figs. The dimes were duly deposited in the bank, a fruit jar with a slit on the lid, and saved for our yearly visit to my fraternal grandfather's farm in Mississippi.

His farm was near Hog Eye and there were many playmate cousins nearby. The unpainted two story house was home to Papaw, two bachelor uncles, and one spinster aunt. And, of course, a fig tree.  This tree grew at the edge of the side porch near the one family bathroom. Every night at bedtime uncles and I would stand on the porch and pee on the fig tree. Uncle Warren, in his husky voice, would say, "Its good for the fig tree."  I assume my spinster aunt washed all the figs before canning. The house and all the inhabitants are all gone now. I don't know about the tree.

The mantis on the bud spurred me to remember and also to know more about figs, so here is more that you ever wanted to know on that topic; unless you were raised in the South.


The fig is one of the first plants cultivated by humans. Subfossil figs, self-pollinating types dating to about 9300 BC were found in the Jordan Valley, just north of Jericho. Thus figs may be the first known instance of agriculture.

In ancient Egypt, ficus sycomorus was associated with the primordial earth mothers Hathor, Nut and Isis as the “Lady of the Sycomore” also known as the Tree of Life.  In India, Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree, ficus religiosa.

Figs were cultivated in ancient Greece. Aristotle noted that as in animal sexes, figs have individuals of two kinds, the cultivated fig that bears fruit, and the wild caprifig that assists the other to bear fruit. Further, Aristotle recorded that the fruits of the wild fig contain psenes (fig wasps); these begin life as larvae and the adult psen splits its pupa and flies out of the fig to find and enter a cultivated fig, saving it from dropping.

Figs were also a common food source for the Romans. Cato the Elder, in his c. 160 BC De Agri Cultura, lists several strains of figs grown at the time he wrote his handbook: the Mariscan, African, Herculanean, Saguntine, and the black Tellanian. The Emperor Augustus, was reputed to have been poisoned via figs from his garden smeared with poison by his wife Livia.

The fig fruit is unique. Unlike most fruit, in which the edible structure is matured ovary tissue, the fig's edible structure is actually stem tissue. The fig fruit is an inverted flower with both the male and female flower parts enclosed in stem tissue. The structure is known botanically as a synconium.  At maturity the interior of the fig contains only the remains of these flower structures, including the small gritty structures commonly called seeds. Actually, these so-called seeds are usually nothing more than unfertilized ovaries that failed to develop, and they impart the resin-like flavor associated with figs.

Spanish missionaries brought the first figs to California. The Mission variety is still popular. Southerners credit Thomas Jefferson for the figs we favor: Brown Turkey, Green Ischa, and White Marseilles.  Near the end of the 18th century he brought the cuttings to Monticello from Paris. When the settlers moved from the east to the  lands Jefferson purchased from Napoleon the families headed south certainly bought cuttings. I have no doubt my great-grandfather had cuttings when he crossed the Mississippi River in 1842 and settled on land here.

I like to think the fig tree at my maternal grandfather's home was planted by him soon after the second family home was built in 1896. Thus, when I transplanted roots from his tree to my cabin in 1980 a link was made to him.  For generations the men in our family have cultivated fig trees and the women have made preserves. Thus, the fig, thriving in warm Southern soil, has helped our family stay connected and together. So if my tree bears fruit this summer and my niece requests figs we can strengthen a  link in the family chain.

In conclusion, I think the asphalt and concrete of big cities blocks us from one another by sealing off contact with Mother Earth. In such an enviroment existentialism spreads, life becomes artificial or abstact.  In our rural communities family links and roots are better cultivated, sometimes with the help of figs.