Behind the Fig Leaf

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The fig has an association with mankind as ancient as the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve first used its leaves to cover their nakedness. Archaeological records show that figs have been consumed rather than used as clothing since Neolithic times.

Figs are thought to have been first cultivated in Western Asia but spread rapidly to the Mediterranean, where they were to become a staple food in ancient Greece. The Spartans fed their athletes almost exclusively on figs, believing it would increase their strength and speed – a phenomenon now termed as having the runs. The Greeks prized their figs so much that laws were passed forbidding the export of the best fruit. The word sycophant has been linked to this legislation, as its original usage was to describe loathsome individuals who informed the authorities about fig smuggling. Sycophant literally means ‘shower of figs’.  The fruit was also important to the ancient Romans who regarded it has sacred because according to legend Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf in the shade of a fig tree.

Over the years the fig has not only screened the sexuality of Adam and Eve and many classical statues, it has also been successful in concealing its own.  With the weirdest sex-life of any crop it is easy to imagine why the fig may have wished to keep it habits private. Only in the twentieth century were the figs sexual secrets finally exposed. The fig tree has been able to achieve this because of the unique structure of the fig itself.

The flowers of the fig tree are small and unisexual, being male or female or sterile-female. They occur together on mass, as do the many small flowers that comprise a dandelion head. However, in the fig the flowers are located on the inside of a pear-like structure, which opens to the world through a small hole at the bottom. This structure is common to all species of fig and is termed the syconium.

The cultivated fig occurs in two distinct forms, a wild form or Caprifig and the edible female fig. It is impossible to tell them apart until they first flower at about seven years old. The wild form flowers three times a year in perfect synchrony with the life cycle of its pollinator the fig wasp which live inside its syconium. The first flowering of the year occurs in early spring. The spring or mamme syconium contains only male and sterile-female flowers. Within the sterile-female flowers the larva of the fig wasp develop and pupate. By late spring the male wasps emerge first with one thing on their mind – sex. They seek out the virgin female wasps still within their pupa, gnaw their way into the unsuspecting females, have sex with them, then die. A simple and short life. Shortly afterwards the newly fertilised female wasps emerge, just as the male fig flowers mature. Thus as the wasps exit the syconium via the small entrance hole they are showered with pollen. Unlike the male fig wasp, which is almost blind, legless and wingless, the females of the species are winged. They fly to the summer syconium or profichi and enter again via the small hole. This time they find only female flowers, both fertile and sterile ones. Each wasp lays about 250 single eggs within the sterile-female flowers and scatter pollen over the fertile ones. They are physically unable to insert their ovipositors into the wrong flowers because the fertile flowers are too long. The next generation of wasps develop as before, pupate, have sex and die or disperse in time to catch the final flowering of the year. The autumn syconium or mammoni contain only sterile-female flowers and their function appears solely to allow the fig wasps to over winter. The ‘fruit’ produced by the Caprifigs as a result of all this activity is leathery, resinous and inedible. All 2000 or so different species of fig have a similar sex-life and almost all have a species of fig wasp all of their own, with both trees and wasps completely dependent on each other for their surviva.l

Nothing about the sex-life of the fig is simple or straightforward. There are three different kinds of fig trees that produce edible female figs. All of these produce two rather than three lots of figs per year. In the most primitive form, the Smyrna fig, both sets of figs require pollination by fig wasps in order to produce edible figs. In the most advanced type, the common fig, all its figs are produced automatically without the need for pollination or the presence of wasps. The third form or San Pedro fig is intermediate between these, in that its spring figs called the breba crop are produced without requiring pollination, but the main summer crop still need the assistance of the fig wasp.

All this complexity appears to have confused fig farmers until into the twentieth century. Guides for fig growers gave hints on hanging branches of Caprifigs in female fig tress so that the pollen may be shaken out into the developing figs. Another technique recommended was to pollinate the figs by hand by inserting a small feather into each fig. Modern advice for fig farmers is based on complex calculations on the numbers of wasps expected to emerge from each Caprifig tree (between 200 and three million) and how many wasps are required to successfully pollinate each edible fig (about five).

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