A fig is a small, edible fruit that grows on most species of Ficus tree. They come in several varieties, colors, and sizes, though they all tend to be somewhat bulbous in shape and very sweet. Many people prefer to eat the fruits fresh from the tree, and nearly all parts are edible; the raw fruit is generally considered quite healthful, too, as it contains a number of important vitamins and minerals while also being high in natural fiber and antioxidants. Some of these benefits are lost if the fruit is dried or cooked, though these preparations are also very popular.
From a strictly biological standpoint, the fig is not technically a fruit but is rather an infrutescence, which means that it is formed when multiple flower buds and plant sexual organs fuse together. A “true” fruit is made up of a single plant ovum that comes from just one blossom. Figs, along with other infrutescences like pineapples, are actually made up of multiple ovaries and usually come about when entire flower clusters join together. The flowers actually blossom inside the fig in most cases, which gives rise to the multiple seed pods that become visible when it is sliced open. Despite these technical details, in non-scientific settings, it is still usually appropriate to refer to figs as fruit.
Growing Region and Commercial Cultivation
Ficus trees are native to the Middle East, Western Asia, and the Mediterranean coast of both North Africa and Europe, though they have been introduced to and grow well in almost any dry climate. Different varieties grow on different types of trees, and horticulturists often estimate that there are upwards of 800 different ficus variations. In theory, this means that there are this many variations of fruit, too, though not all are edible and some taste far better than others; some are deemed purely ornamental or are so bitter as to be unappealing to most consumers. People who are serious about ficus cultivation typically seek out trees that produce large, juicy, and consistently sweet fruit.
The trees typically do best in warm, mostly dry climates, which has made places like California and parts of Eastern Australia prime farming zones. Commercial cultivation usually focuses on a few varieties that are most popular in the marketplace, usually based on taste but sometimes also centered on qualities like attractive appearance or hardiness when it comes to traveling over long distances.
The so-called “black mission” is one of the most popular varieties in the Western Hemisphere. This dark purple fruit is believed to be native to Spain, and many scholars think it was brought to North America during the Roman Catholic missions in the 1700s. It is the most heavily cultivated fig today, and it is grown and exported primarily by farmers in the Southwestern United States. Kadotas, another predominantly U.S. varietal, are at the other end of the color spectrum and actually stay green even when fully ripe.
”Brown Turkey” varietals are also very popular in many places, particularly in Europe. They are probably native to Turkey, which is where they get their name, but they are grown most commonly on farms throughout France and the central Mediterranean; they often resemble the black mission in shape, but tend to be lighter in color and milder in flavor. The Calimyrna is another Turkish variety, and it is one of the most commonly dried fruits. Calimyrnas are usually known for their highly concentrated flavor and generally small size, which tends to stay pleasant-tasting even after dehydration.
Some varieties, particularly the King, do best in wetter, cooler climates. Farmers in places like England and the Northern Pacific corridor of the United States and Canada often have good luck growing these. They tend to be smaller and slightly more bitter than those grown in warmer places and may come with a tougher skin, but they nevertheless have the same distinctive taste prized by so many people.
Like most fruits, the fig is most commonly enjoyed raw, and the entire thing is edible. Varieties with particularly tough skin may need to be peeled to make them palatable, however. Most people slice the fruit into halves or quarters, and it is popularly served with cheese or various crusty breads. The fruit can also be candied or preserved, and jams and spreads made with it are often used as a filling for cookies, cakes, and other confections.
Both fresh and dried fruit can be baked directly into things like cakes and muffins. Some recipes call for whole fruits to be poached or baked alongside meats, which can add a sweet component to an otherwise savory dish, or the fruit can be sliced and used as a garnish. In most cases, the flesh is relatively dry, which means that there isn’t usually much juice; cooks can encourage liquid by simmering and heating slices, but straight “fig juice” is very uncommon.
Dried figs are a popular snack in many places, and they can also be ground into a sort of “paste” that can be used to flavor a range of different foods, from baked goods to poultry. Some cultures, particularly those in Mediterranean Europe, also ferment the dried fruits to create a highly alcoholic liqueur. The most traditional drying method is to simply leave the fruit on the tree; in most cases, the sun will dry individual pieces once they’ve ripened. Commercial manufacturers tend to use dehydrators and drying chambers, though, which give more consistent results and also avoids the risk of contamination by insects and birds.
Fresh figs are extremely fragile and will not keep for more than a few days; storing them under refrigeration can extend their shelf life, but not usually by much. They don’t typically transport very well, either, which means that they can be hard to find very far from the tree. Greenhouse growing means that the fruit is available year round in some places, but it is most common during the warm summer months.
Dried fruit, on the other hand, is almost always available. It will last a lot longer, but it is still perishable; in most cases, it should be kept in a cool, dry place to prevent rot or discoloration. An airtight container will also help save the fruit from getting hard.
Figs are typically very high in natural fiber, which means that they have natural laxative effects and can improve digestive regularity. These characteristics are particularly pronounced in dried versions, as the fiber is more readily absorbed by the body when water has been removed from the fruit.
Some people also use the skins as a natural remedy for a range of ailments, including warts, skin rashes, and swollen gums. The fruit can also be boiled in either water of milk to make a tonic that many people use as a treatment for a sore throat.
Fresh figs are very high in protein, dietary fiber, and calcium, as well as other important minerals like iron and potassium. They typically contain a lot of natural sugars, however, which means that they can have a lot of calories and are high in carbohydrates. Sugar concentrations are typically highest in dried versions, and they may also contain a number of chemical preservatives depending on how they were manufactured. Consumers who are worried about additives should read product packaging very carefully to see what, if anything, has been included beyond the basic fruit.
Problems for Gardeners
Ficus trees are relatively easy to grow in temperate climates, which makes them popular for home gardeners. Most horticultural experts warn novices to choose their species carefully, though. In the right conditions, the trees will grow very quickly, and they typically have expansive root structures. This means that they need a lot of space, and most will choke out other nearby growth. When left unchecked, their roots can interfere with the foundations of houses, break through pavement, and crack underground plumbing. Homeowners are usually advised to research the different types of ficus carefully in order to choose one that is appropriate for their space constraints.