Figs

Figs

The genus Ficus encompasses over 800 plant species, the most well-known of which is Ficus carica, which creates the edible fruits found at the farmers market. While most people in this country have tried Fig Newtons, and some know figs for their place in literature and mythology, many have never bitten into a fresh, ripe fig. But in California, where figs thrive, they are a common backyard tree and a familiar sight to farmers market regulars. The fig’s plump, slippery sweetness teases us at the beginning of summer and overwhelms us at the end.

Indeed, many fig varieties have two distinct harvests. The first harvest, which happens in June, is called the breba crop. The fruits of this harvest tend to be less sweet and more acidic than the flavorful main crop, which is larger and lasts longer.

The fig’s dual harvest is not the only thing that makes it botanically unique. What are commonly considered the tree’s fruits are actually inverted clusters of hundreds of tiny flowers. The true fruits of the fig are the crunchy things that many refer to as seeds. The unusual structure of this pseudo-fruit is the result of thousands of years of coevolution with the fig’s pollinator.

In the wild, the symbiosis between figs and wasps is a marvel. Miniscule fig wasps hatch inside figs, immediately mate, and then dig a small hole to get out of the fig. Male wasps, which have no wings, die after helping the females burrow out, and females fly away, covered in the pollen of the flowers inside the fig in which they were born. The females then find a new immature fig in which to lay their eggs. They enter the fig by way of a small hole called the ostiole, lay their eggs (inadvertently pollinating the tiny fig flowers), and the cycle repeats.

Though some commercial fig varieties depend upon this miraculous process, most develop fruit without pollination. Recent archaeological findings indicate that even the very first cultivated figs (which are now thought to be the first cultivated crops) may not have required pollination. Early agriculturalists in Western Asia may have recognized this convenient mutation and started propagating trees using cuttings over 11,000 years ago. Figs spread to the Mediterranean and were brought to California in 1759 by the Franciscan monks of Mission San Diego. They were subsequently planted at all the missions along the Camino Real. One of the most popular fig varieties, Black Mission, gets its name from this history. It took over 100 years for a commercial fig industry to develop in California, and today we are the only state with significant fig production.

Still, a fresh fig can sometimes be hard to find. The fruits pose problems in the industrial food system because they must be picked soft and are extremely delicate. Since they don’t stand up well to transport and storage, the majority of California’s fig production is sold dried. The fig’s perishability makes it a perfect candidate for direct marketing. Farmers selling their crop straight to eaters can pick fruit the day before market. This is what Knoll Farms has been doing with success for over 20 years. Kristie Knoll says figs are a reliable crop for the farm and that most varieties grow very well in their Brentwood soil.

The fig harvest is at its peak in September, but some figs may be available as late as November. You can combine this succulent fruit with other foods in various recipes, or just enjoy the fig’s mythic, historical, and botanical significance and its unadulterated, alluring flavor by eating it plain!

In Season

June, July, September, October

Recipes with Figs

Green Beans and Figs with Hazelnut Dressing

Joyce Goldstein, Inside the California Food Revolution

Chicken Leg Confit, Marinated Fig and Tomato, Fried Bread, and Arugula

Daniel Corey, Luce

Caramelized Figs (Fichi Caramellati)

Joyce Goldstein

Fig and Wheat Berry Salad with Blue Cheese

Cheryl Sternman Rule & Paulette Phlipot, Ripe

Articles about Figs

July 18, 2014

Meet Marcy

CUESA is excited to welcome our new executive director, Marcy Coburn! Find out what inspires her work.

July 11, 2014

Farm Tripping

Summer is prime time for agritourism. Here’s our list of local U-picks, tours, and other farm fun.

July 09, 2014

A Fond Farewell from Critical Edge Knife Sharpening

Bob Kattenburg retires after 19 years as the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s knife sharpener.

July 04, 2014

On the Farm at Marin Roots

Take a behind-the-scenes look at organic veggie growing with the young farmers at Marin Roots Farm.

July 02, 2014

Volunteer of the Month: Rafael Zuniga

Rafael’s passion for good food stems from his work with children and youth.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »