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Fig

by Linda Inoki
Across the sea a land there is,
Where, if fate will, men may have bliss,
For it is fair as any land:
There hath the reaper a full hand,
While in the orchard hangs aloft
The purple fig, a-growing soft.

From “The Earthly Paradise” by the English poet, artist and designer William Morris (1834-96)

Fig trees are revered the world over. In Islam and to Hindus they are sacred trees of life. In Buddhism, the Supreme Buddha, Gautama Siddartha, achieved enlightenment under a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa). And in Christianity, the Bible tells how Adam and Eve hid their genitals behind fig leaves in the Garden of Eden. There are more than 850 species of fig, including creepers, strangler vines and shrubs as well as spectacular trees. Many are vital to the life of rain forests: birds and monkeys feed on the plentiful fruit while insects feed on the leaves. All fig plants produce a white, sticky sap that is sometimes poisonous to humans. The common, edible fig (F. carica) is a tree, native to the Middle East, which is adapted to life in hot, dry conditions. Edible figs reached China more than 1,000 years ago, where they were known as “the fruit without a flower.” Curiously, the trees do actually have flowers — but they are hidden inside the special chamber, or syconium, that we mistakenly call a fruit. Each species of fig lives in harmony with a particular type of wasp. A female fig wasp that is born and nurtured in one “fruit” will crawl into another via the small hole at the base, carrying some pollen with her. She mates with a male wasp, which lives inside the syconium, and lays her eggs on the short flowers. The long flowers, which are designed to pick up the pollen, will develop into seeds.