National Geographic : 1951 Sep
To Ancient Man, Figs Were a Sacred Fruit IN AMERICA figs are generally eaten as a luxury, a sweet dessert, or a morsel in a fancily wrapped box of gift fruit. In some Mediterranean countries, however, they are a basic part of the diet. Their importance in these areas is shown by legends that grew up about them in ancient times. The Romans considered the fig, Ficus carica, a gift of the god Bacchus. In the countries of southwestern Asia, in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, figs were regarded as sacred. Their significance in Hebrew life is indicated repeatedly in the Bible, begin ning with the story of the Garden of Eden. A well-drawn fig tree, showing the harvesting of the fruit, is on the wall of a 12th dynasty Egyptian grave (circa 1989-1776 B. c.). The species from which the cultivated fig has come apparently had a wide range in the area near the Mediterranean, from Syria west ward to the Canary Islands. A fruit so long cultivated may have become naturalized in parts of the area, but fossil remains found in France and Italy indicate that figlike plants grew there long before the Stone Age. Aristotle Studied Fig Pollination Figs were probably first cultivated in Arabia and Egypt, and doubtless the sweeter, better kinds were selected and propagated with the beginning of agriculture in those ancient countries. They were known and prized in Crete in 1500 B. c., and in Greece a little later. The Greeks even knew in part the need for caprification, a process whereby some of the fruit-bearing trees must be polli nated. Aristotle, in the 4th century B. c., recorded that insects had to visit the young fruits or they would drop. He did not, how ever, fully understand why. Introduction of figs into America can be credited to the Spaniards. Varieties from Spain were sent to Hispaniola in 1520, and were reported to be bearing well in 1526. Before the end of the 16th century, figs were reported as abundant in Peru, and were established in Florida at St. Augustine. Capt. John Smith reported in 1629 that one "Mis tress Pearce" of the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement, harvested "neere a hundred bush els of excellent figges." In California the fig, like many other fruits, dates from the establishment of the mission at San Diego in 1769. The variety now called Mission, which was planted there, is still the leading black fig grown in the State. Although figs were widely planted in gardens in Cali fornia earlier, commercial culture did not start until about 1885. Many varieties of figs will set fruit with out pollination, and these can be grown suc cessfully without caprification. The choicest of the white, drying varieties, however, belong to a group known as the Smyrna type, and these must be pollinated. Many trees of this type were planted in California late in the last century and grew well, but the fruit dropped before maturing. Caprifigs, the trees used for pollinating this type in Europe and Asia, had been brought into the State. But the insect that carries the pollen into the fruit, a small wasp called the Blastophaga, was not present, and early efforts to introduce it were not successful. There was wide difference of opinion as to the necessity for the insect. Finally it was successfully established in the State through an importation in 1899 by the United States Department of Agriculture of capri fig fruits containing the Blastophaga wasps. This insect breeds in caprifigs, which are grown in special blocks away from the fruit ing fig trees. At the proper time, the capri figs are gathered with the wasps in them and hung in small bags in the fruit-bearing trees. The female wasps crawl out, becoming cov ered with pollen as they do so. They crawl into the fruit of the Smyrna varieties seeking a place to lay eggs, and in the search pollinate the flowers. Since the introduction of the in sect and the working out of suitable handling techniques, production of these Smyrna vari eties in California has been successful. The fig is a semihardy tree which sheds its leaves in the winter. When fully dormant, the trees will stand temperatures down to about 10" F. without serious injury. Tem peratures below 5° will kill them to the ground, but in most cases, when this happens, new shoots will sprout up from the roots. California Grows Most of Our Figs Most commercial fig growing in the United States is in California. About 35,500 acres there are devoted to figs, with an annual crop of some 32,000 tons of dried figs, 19,000 tons of fresh, and more than 700,000 cases of canned fruit. Figs are also grown commer cially in Texas and as a home-garden fruit in other parts of the South. Most of the world's commercial fig produc tion is marketed in the dried form; some of it is canned or preserved. Figs are esteemed in the fresh form in countries where they are grown, but are difficult to ship and handle for distant markets. Italy is now the leading country of the world in fig production, most orchards being located south of Naples and on Sicily. Tur key ranks second. Spain, the United States, Algeria, Greece, and Portugal all have major industries. Many other countries with suit able climatic conditions produce figs on a smaller scale.