Ficus carica

God Hates Figs.

Go ahead, Mary, I implore you.  Conduct an internet search on the word “fig” and see what pops up.  Use Google, use Bing.  Doesn’t matter.  “God Hates Figs” will be one of your available links.  I speak from experience, having recently conducted that very search with my newly-arrived, infantile fig tree cradled in one hand, the other hand painstakingly typing.  I was flabbergasted.

It turns out that this slogan – God Hates Figs – is commonly used on counter protest signs and banners at events, such as funerals, being picketed by that cesspool of evil, the Westboro Baptist Church, whose own neon-rainbow-colored signage most often reads “God Hates Fags”.  Giggle.  No one is as clever as the gays when it comes to counter protest slogans, won’t you agree?

Don’t let me get carried away about the inbred, misaligned, un-American vileness that is the Westboro Baptist Church.  I call that Kansas bunch “God’s Atheists”, because surely there is not a cult in existence that, in the misappropriated use of the name of their proclaimed Lord, march further away from the supposed word of God, further away from any religion’s code of behavior, than they do.  An aside: yes, Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper, there are “true religions” other than the Westboro Baptist Church (which, mind you, is disowned by both the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention, possibly one of the most right-wing organizations in the entire world).

I have no good words to write on this subject – there are no good words for the evil that is embodied by the Westboro Baptist Church.  What good words can be said about a group of ill-informed rednecks who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers and those of innocent youth killed during the commission of hate crimes.  Really, these villains will protest anywhere they can garner some public recognition of their hateful existence.  They are a crazy, malignant tumor strangling the pure purpose out of first amendment rights, and I am very sorry that I am not an ethereal surgeon with a sharp scalpel to excise them.  I would toss them to the biological waste bin and light the match to their incineration.  If I were God.

Turns out, though, that Jesus, if not God directly, apparently did hate figs.  Go figure.  Mark 11:12-20 includes an account of Jesus cursing a fig tree.  Seems he and his entourage were leaving Bethany and Jesus was in the mood for a little sumpin’-sumpin’ snack.  Seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to find some fruit, but when he reached it he found nothing but leaves.  It was not the season for figs.

So, creationists, are you telling me that the son of the entity who supposedly created everything didn’t know it wasn’t fig season?  He was at least thirty years old at this point, and had lived in the area (where figs were and still are a mainstay in the diet) for his entire life.  He should have known, I’m just saying.  I grew up on a farm and I knew when the wheat was ready, the alfalfa was due, the tomatoes were ripe, and the apples were done.  By the time I was ten.  What kind of the son of God doesn’t know when his father’s figs are in season?

Besides, if he could make water into wine and feed a crowd from one loaf of bread, what’s the problem with whipping up some out-of-season figs?  Greenhouse growers do it all of the time!  None of this makes sense to me.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Jesus had a hissy fit and smote that fig tree and the darn thing withered.  God, or at least his emissary, it seems, may hate figs, after all.  However, I am positive that if God really exists – which is in itself too much of a stretch for me personally, but in my world you are welcome to your beliefs as long as you don’t picket a funeral or insist that I believe them, too – then said God hates the Westboro Baptist Church the most.  More than anything.

When I lived in Seattle, Washington, during the years of my life I like to refer to as my “Garden of Eden Period”, because Puget Sound is truly the land of constant gentle rain and eye-splitting greenery, I brazenly coveted my very religious neighbor’s fig tree.  His wife?  Not so much.  Oh, sure, we were friends of a sort.  She and I chatted and exchanged recipes over the fence, even occasionally gossiped about the antics of the other neighbors.  Once, out of misplaced sense of neighborly obligation, I accepted the brand new Book of Mormon she handed over (it went straight into the Goodwill box, but, still, I accepted it with nary an eye roll or tasteless anti-God or pro-polygamy comment).  We got along, the neighbor’s wife and I, but I didn’t covet her in the least.  Too buxom, too wifey, too focused on her narrow religious viewpoint.  She was better off with him, a misogynistic church elder who appreciated her feminine attributes, sense of duty, and supplicant demeanor.

By God, though, I wanted, I needed, I had to have that fig tree.

The horrifying fact was they hated the tree.  They treated it with pointed disdain.  “Brings too many birds,” they complained.  “Takes up half the yard and won’t stop spreading.”

They never harvested the fruit, and even worse, they never offered it to the neighbors.  Instead, they let the starlings and robins and blue jays have it.  Adding insult to injury, every couple of years they hacked that which offended them back to raw, latex-bleeding stumps.  But every time, rapture-like, that fig tree rose again.  And I loved it.  That tree touched me; I couldn’t get enough of the huge, lobed leaves, imagined myself strolling about my own private Garden of Eden in a primitive fig-leaf loincloth and a state of unadulterated purity.  I peered through the holes in our shared fence like some kind of fruit-obsessed Peeping Tom.  I wanted to caress the figlets until they ripened and transformed themselves into Fig Newtons.  Yes, I coveted, even though I had never (still haven’t!) eaten an actual fig – the cookies from my childhood are the closest I have ever come.

Interesting fact:  the cookie is named not after a person, say a plump, grandmotherly Mrs. Newton in her aromatic 1950’s kitchen, but after Newton, MA, near where they were first commercially mass produced in an industrial bakery.

I didn’t care whether I liked figs or not, I wanted to run my sweaty palms along the smooth, rubbery branches.  I coveted that tree for its leaves and quirky habits and lofty architectural structure, for its elegance and beauty.  I was sure I would learn to love the fruit.

And then the good neighbors had it removed, lobes and fruit and roots and all.  They smote that fig!  I was so devastated I had to move.  Now I’m in the other Washington, and still I covet.  I’m a homo, though, and like most homos, when I covet, I obtain.  This past spring, in a vodka-inspired spate of late-night online shopping, I ordered one dwarf Celeste Fig tree from a reputable nursery.  And then I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  A reputable nursery, I have discovered through my years, will not mail the plants until it is the appropriate planting season in one’s particular climate zone.  Unlike Jesus, a reputable nursery is aware of the proper seasons.  Reputable, yes.  Rational, yes.  But still maddening.

Finally it arrived – all six inches and two leaves of it.  I understood I ordered a dwarf tree, purposefully, having overcrowded my garden to a point near hoarding as it is.  But seriously?  Six inches of fig twig, three roots, two painfully folded leaves.  It was the saddest specimen I’d ever received in the mail.  I named it Baby Moses, imagined the infant floating down the Nile (explains why it took so long to arrive) and immediately hit my gardening resource books, any gardener’s best friend.  What, pray tell, did Baby Moses need from me?

I have more gardening resource books than is called for, really.  They occupy my special shelf, near the bed, next to the personal lubricant and whatever other accoutrements an old queen needs at bedside.  Mr. Perfect, the very patient boyfriend, sometimes intimates that perhaps we should cull them.  Do I really need the antique ones?  Isn’t the information outdated?  Do I need to know how to grow “Wildflowers on the Windowsill”?  Why do I read and reread and reread Green Thoughts?  Isn’t once enough?

Green Thoughts, by the way, is my all-time favorite book and one that I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone, gardener or not.  This beautiful treatise was written by Eleanor Perényi, published in 1981, and is still the wittiest and wisest book on any of my shelves.  As a wide-eyed and innocent Queen Gardener, at the age of twenty-three, I wrote Ms. Perényi a gushing fan letter – the only fan letter I have ever written.  I described how much I loved her book and how it touched me, and I revealed, with some embarrassment, that life had reduced me to a point where I had no more than a shady balcony and some terracotta pots for purposes of gardening.  Imagine my surprise when I received a very warm, hand-written answer thanking me for my profuse admiration and advising me that I, indeed, kept good company as it was the ancient Romans who first perfected the art of gardening in pots.

My answer to Mr. Perfect is a resounding YES!, I need them.  Case in point:  Baby Moses needs my attention and somewhere in this stack, I will find the answer.

Do you know how many of my multitude of books had reference to Fig?  Zero.  Zilch.  None.  Zap.  My fig twig may as well have been an unholy ghost, an unwanted pariah, a ghastly phantom.  Perhaps all my gardening books were edited by the kin of my ex-neighbors, the un-coveted Mormon housewife and her church elder husband.  In the world of gardening books, Baby Moses did not warrant advice.  It was time to turn to the gardener’s second-best friend, the internet, where, after my initial foray into God’s hatred of figs (but not as much as he hates the Wesboro Baptist Church), I found sufficient information.

As it turns out, the edible fig was most likely the first plant ever purposefully cultivated.  Nine subfossil figs dating to about 9400-9200 BC were found in an archeological dig near Jericho.  A subfossil, by the way, is simply organic material that has not fossilized completely due to a variety of conditions – you know, like Cher.

These nine figs predate the domestication of wheat, barley, or beans, and may very well be the first known instance of gardening.  No wonder I covet.  Here’s another interesting tidbit:  Cato the Elder wrote about fig cultivation in his treatise, De Agri Cultura, the first ever gardening book and the oldest surviving work of Latin prose (written about 160 BC).  Learning this did not help me understand why modern gardening books make no mention of the fig tree, however, I was sure that Cato the Elder must have been a Queen Gardener.  Unfortunately, I could find no confirming reference to any homosexual proclivities.  Indeed, he once held a handful of figs out to the Roman Senate to symbolize (as figs are known to symbolize) their effeminacy, their weakness in taking care of that pesky Greek problem.  Cato the Elder, it seems, was no queen.

One last fascinating fig tidbit before we move on to cultivation:  The word “sycophant” comes from the Greek word sykophantes, meaning “one who shows the fig”. “Showing the fig” is a vulgar gesture made with the hand.  Westboro Baptist Church, I show you my fig.

While my gardening books failed, me, the internet has much to say about figs and their cultivation.  Most of it, while fascinating, has little do to with the home gardener and his fig tree.  For instance, a fig is not a fruit.  It is an invaginated (tee hee), or inside-out, flower. Scientifically, this is called an infrutescence.

Stop yawning, Mary, we are getting there.  Remember, patience is a virtue.

In their natural habitat, most “wild” (caduceus) figs are pollinated by a specific wasp.  Each fig variety has its own wasp variety, and only that wasp can pollinate that fig.  This leads me to question:  if all this was whipped up in a seven-day creation extravaganza, then didn’t someone’s God still have just a tad bit too much time on his hands?  Why not tackle pestilence or disease or famine?  Why bother with these beautiful, but trifling, symbiotic relationships?  This intricate, intimate plant/insect relationship seems to point a bony finger straight at evolution to me.  But I digress.

To make baby figs, a fertilized female wasp enters the infrutescence through the sicon, a tiny hole in the crown (the ostiole). She crawls about on the inflorescence, the thread-like flowers inside the fig, and pollinates the females.  She does this with male fig pollen she has carried in with her.  Female wasp pollinating female flower with borrowed male bits:  can we spell l-e-s-b-i-a-n-s?  I wonder if she carries a tiny little turkey baster in her tool belt.

After all this crawling about on the inflorescence, the poor, exhausted wasp-ette lays her eggs inside some of the flowers and dies, which means every caduceus fig has a dead wasp in it – no wonder I’ve never eaten one!  After weeks of development inside the fig the baby male wasps emerge first, before the females, through holes they chew in their galls.  A gall is plant tissue that is taken over by the embryonic wasps, and turned into a sort of infrutescence condo association.  These boys then fertilize the unhatched females by depositing semen in the hole they’ve left in the gall.  Sort of a fig glory hole, I am imagining.  Pump and dump, or something like that.  Not that I’ve ever seen a glory hole.  But I’ve read.

The males later return to the gall and chew the hole larger so that the newborn and pregnant females can emerge.  The females, on their way out, collect pollen from the male flowers inside the infrutescence in order to pollinate their own fig, which they have just about forty-eight hours to find before they die.

Having written all of that, I am both strangely turned on and completely exhausted.  And I have yet to touch on the subject of fig cultivation.  Fortunately, the fig trees sold to home gardeners are persistent (or common) figs, and do not require wasps, galls, or pollination.  The fruit simply happens.  Thank you, God, for putting aside your symbiotic tinkering long enough during your creation binge to develop parthenocarpic figs.  The most common types of these figs are Adriatic, Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, and Celeste (like my beloved Baby Moses).

The fig tree is, indeed, picturesque.  The large, bright leaves, rough hairy on the upper side and soft hairy on the underside, lend a tropical feel during summer months.  Larger varieties can grow to fifty feet, but more common is ten to thirty feet.  And they spread; their width often matches their height.  However, if you didn’t inherit your own Green Acres, you can follow my lead and get your own Baby Moses, who is advertised to get no taller (or wider!) than six feet.

Fig branches are often described as muscular – which may go great lengths in explaining my coveting.  However, the wood is weak and decays rapidly, and the twigs are pithy rather than woody.  When cut, fig branches will excrete a latex sap that is irritating to human skin.  Figs, especially the dwarf varieties, lend themselves to pot gardens or espalier techniques.  Any fig will require training and pruning, however, use caution or you may lessen your harvest.  Figs typically produce two crops per year. The first, or breba crop, develops in the spring on the previous year’s growth.  This crop is generally smaller and of a poorer quality.  In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s growth and ripens in the late summer or fall.  It is therefore best to prune in the early fall after the main crop is harvested.  The following spring’s breba crop will be reduced, but the main crop will not be impacted.

Other than that, make sure your fig tree is planted so as to receive full sun, water as needed especially when trees are young.  If potted (as is Baby Moses), you should fertilize during the summer months with a weak, nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, and most of the soil in the container should be replaced every three years.  Fig trees planted in the ground typically do not require fertilization.  Figs are advertised as hardy to zones 5a or 5b, however, prolonged freezing (defined as -10 to -20 C degrees for more than a few days) will kill a tree to the ground.  Therefore, if you are unfortunate enough to live somewhere that cold, you should ensure that your tree is planted near a light-colored, south-facing wall and for further protection, erect a frame over the plant, covering and surrounding it with heavy carpet for the winter.  You might consider doing the same for yourself as well.  Or move South for the colder months.  I hear Fort Lauderdale is most welcoming to Queen Gardeners.

If your fig tree does freeze to the ground, chances are very good that it will grow back from the roots.  They are nothing if not persistent.

My friend, The Internet, informs me that figs must be allowed to ripen fully on the tree before they are picked. Pick them when immature and that is what you will get:  immature figs. They will not ripen.  A ripe fig will be slightly soft and will begin to bend at the neck. The leathery skin may begin to crack.  I am advised to harvest the fruit gently to avoid bruising.  It is reported that fresh figs do not keep well and can be stored in the refrigerator for only two or three days; however, some fig varieties (including Baby Moses Celeste figs) are delicious when dried. They take four to five days to dry in the sun and ten to twelve hours in a dehydrator. Dried figs can be stored for six to eight months.

As of this writing, Baby Moses has reached a height (and width!) of about three feet, and his rough hairy upper/soft hair underside leaves are approaching six or seven inches in length.  Whether one believes in creation or evolution, watching the leaves unfurl from tiny bright whorls to full-on loincloths is a beautiful and remarkable process.  Mr. Perfect has pointed out that at the base of each leaf, a tiny invaginated infrutescence (God, I love saying that) has appeared, and it seems we are on track to enjoy at least a small, wasp-free fig harvest come late summer.

If God does, indeed, hate, then I am certain that he hates the Westboro  Baptist Church.  And although he, or his son, may hate figs (why create them, then?), I am certain that I will love them.  And if not, I will still love my beautiful Baby Moses.

1 thought on “Fig

  1. Never in my life, did I think I would be so interested in reading about the “Fig”.You astound me Jackson, not only with your great use of words, but your intelligence on matter’s most people would never open their minds to,, Great job, keep them coming,your sister and your admirer :-))

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