1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fig

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FIG, the popular name given to plants of the genus Ficus, an extensive group, included in the natural order Moraceae, and characterized by a remarkable development of the pear-shaped receptacle, the edge of which curves inwards, so as to form a nearly closed cavity, bearing the numerous fertile and sterile flowers mingled on its surface. The figs vary greatly in habit,—some being low trailing shrubs, others gigantic trees, among the most striking forms of those tropical forests to which they are chiefly indigenous. They have alternate leaves, and abound in a milky juice, usually acrid, though in a few instances sufficiently mild to be used for allaying thirst. This juice contains caoutchouc in large quantity.

Figure 1.—Fruiting Branch of Fig, Ficus Carica; about 2/7 nat. size.
1. Unripe fruit cut lengthwise; about 1/2 nat. size. 2. Female flower taken
from 1; enlarged. 3. Ripe fruit cut lengthwise; about 1/2 nat. size.

Ficus Carica (figure 1), which yields the well-known figs of commerce, is a bush or small tree—rarely more than 18 or 20 ft. high,—with broad, rough, deciduous leaves, very deeply lobed in the cultivated varieties, but in the wild plant sometimes nearly entire. The green, rough branches bear the solitary, nearly sessile receptacles in the axils of the leaves. The male flowers are placed chiefly in the upper part of the cavity, and in most varieties are few in number. As it ripens, the receptacle enlarges greatly, and the numerous single-seeded pericarps or true fruits become imbedded in it. The fruit of the wild fig never acquires the succulence of the cultivated kinds. The fig seems to be indigenous to Asia Minor and Syria, but now occurs in a wild state in most of the countries around the Mediterranean. From the ease with which the nutritious fruit can be preserved, it was probably one of the earliest objects of cultivation, as may be inferred from the frequent allusions to it in the Hebrew Scriptures.[1] From a passage in Herodotus the fig would seem to have been unknown to the Persians in the days of the first Cyrus; but it must have spread in remote ages over all the districts around the Aegean and Levant. The Greeks are said to have received it from Caria (hence the specific name); but the fruit so improved under Hellenic culture that Attic figs became celebrated throughout the East, and special laws were made to regulate their exportation. From the contemptuous name given to informers against the violation of those enactments, συκοφάνται (σῦκον, φαίνω), our word sycophant is usually derived. The fig was one of the principal articles of sustenance among the Greeks; the Spartans especially used it largely at their public tables. From Hellas, at some prehistoric period, it was transplanted to Italy and the adjacent islands. Pliny enumerates many varieties, and alludes to those from Ebusus (the modern Iviza) as most esteemed by Roman epicures; while he describes those of home growth as furnishing a large portion of the food of the slaves, particularly those employed in agriculture, by whom great quantities were eaten in the fresh state at the periods of fig-harvest. In Latin myths the plant plays an important part. Held sacred to Bacchus, it was employed in religious ceremonies; and the fig-tree that overshadowed the twin founders of Rome in the wolf’s cave, as an emblem of the future prosperity of the race, testified to the high value set upon the fruit by the nations of antiquity. The tree is now cultivated in all the Mediterranean countries, but the larger portion of our supply of figs comes from Asia Minor, the Spanish Peninsula and the south of France. Those of Asiatic Turkey are considered the best. The varieties are extremely numerous, and the fruit is of various colours, from deep purple to yellow, or nearly white. The trees usually bear two crops,—one in the early summer from the buds of the last year, the other in the autumn from those on the spring growth; the latter forms the chief harvest. Many of the immature receptacles drop off from imperfect fertilization, which circumstance has led, from very ancient times, to the practice of caprification.[2] Branches of the wild fig in flower are placed over the cultivated bushes. Certain hymenopterous insects, of the genera Blastophaga and Sycophaga, which frequent the wild fig, enter the minute orifice of the receptacle, apparently to deposit their eggs; conveying thus the pollen more completely to the stigmas, they ensure the fertilization and consequent ripening of the fruit. By some the nature of the process has been questioned, and the better maturation of the fruit attributed merely to the stimulus given by the puncture of the insect, as in the case of the apple; but the arrangement of the unisexual flowers in the fig renders the first theory the more probable. In some districts a straw or small twig is thrust into the receptacle with a similar object. When ripe the figs are picked, and spread out to dry in the sun,—those of better quality being much pulled and extended by hand during the process. Thus prepared, the fruit is packed closely in barrels, rush baskets, or wooden boxes, for commerce. The best kind, known as elemi, are shipped at Smyrna, where the pulling and packing of figs form one of the most important industries of the people.

This fruit still constitutes a large part of the food of the natives of western Asia and southern Europe, both in the fresh and dried state. A sort of cake made by mashing up the inferior kinds serves in parts of the Archipelago as a substitute for bread. Alcohol is obtained from fermented figs in some southern countries; and a kind of wine, still made from the ripe fruit, was known to the ancients, and mentioned by Pliny under the name of sycites. Medicinally the fig is employed as a gentle laxative, when eaten abundantly often proving useful in chronic constipation; it forms a part of the well-known “confection of senna.” The milky juice of the stems and leaves is very acrid, and has been used in some countries for raising blisters. The wood is porous and of little value; though a piece, saturated with oil and spread with emery, is in France a common substitute for a hone.

The fig is grown for its fresh fruit (eaten as an article of dessert) in all the milder parts of Europe, and in the United States, with protection in winter, succeeds as far north as Pennsylvania. The fig was introduced into England by Cardinal Pole, from Italy, early in the 16th century. It lives to a great age, and along the southern coast of England bears fruit abundantly as a standard; but in Scotland and in many parts of England a south wall is indispensable for its successful cultivation out of doors.

Fig trees are propagated by cuttings, which should be put into pots, and placed in a gentle hotbed. They may be obtained more speedily from layers, which should consist of two or three years old shoots, and these, when rooted, will form plants ready to bear fruit the first or second year after planting. The best soil for a fig border is a friable loam, not too rich, but well drained; a chalky subsoil is congenial to the tree, and, to correct the tendency to over-luxuriance of growth, the roots should be confined within spaces surrounded by a wall enclosing an area of about a square yard. The sandy soil of Argenteuil, near Paris, suits the fig remarkably well; but the best trees are those which grow in old quarries, where their roots are free from stagnant water, and where they are sheltered from cold, while exposed to a very hot sun, which ripens the fruit perfectly. The fig succeeds well planted in a paved court against a building with a south aspect.

The fig tree naturally produces two sets of shoots and two crops of fruit in the season. The first shoots generally show young figs in July and August, but these in the climate of England very seldom ripen, and should therefore be rubbed off. The late or midsummer shoots likewise put forth fruit-buds, which, however, do not develop themselves till the following spring; and these form the only crop of figs on which the British gardener can depend.

The fig tree grown as a standard should get very little pruning, the effect of cutting being to stimulate the buds to push shoots too vigorous for bearing. When grown against a wall, it has been recommended that a single stem should be trained to the height of a foot. Above this a shoot should be trained to the right, and another to the left; from these principals two other subdivisions should be encouraged, and trained 15 in. apart; and along these branches, at distances of about 8 in., shoots for bearing, as nearly as possible of equal vigour, should be encouraged. The bearing shoots produced along the leading branches should be trained in at full length, and in autumn every alternate one should be cut back to one eye. In the following summer the trained shoots should bear and ripen fruit, and then be cut back in autumn to one eye, while shoots from the bases of those cut back the previous autumn should be trained for succession. In this way every leading branch will be furnished alternately with bearing and successional shoots.

When protection is necessary, as it may be in severe winters, though it is too often provided in excess, spruce branches have been found to answer the purpose exceedingly well, owing to the fact that their leaves drop off gradually when the weather becomes milder in spring, and when the trees require less protection and more light and air. The principal part requiring protection is the main stem, which is more tender than the young wood.

In forcing, the fig requires more heat than the vine to bring it into leaf. It may be subjected to a temperature of 50° at night, and from 60° to 65° in the day, and this should afterwards be increased to 60° and 65° by night, and 70° to 75° by day, or even higher by sun heat, giving plenty of air at the same time. In this temperature the evaporation from the leaves is very great, and this must be replaced and the wants of the swelling fruit supplied by daily watering, by syringing the foliage, and by moistening the floor, this atmospheric moisture being also necessary to keep down the red spider. When the crop begins to ripen, a moderately dry atmosphere should be maintained, with abundant ventilation when the weather permits.

The fig tree is easily cultivated in pots, and by introducing the plants into heat in succession the fruiting season may be considerably extended. The plants should be potted in turfy loam mixed with charcoal and old mortar rubbish, and in summer top-dressings of rotten manure, with manure water two or three times a week, will be beneficial. While the fruit is swelling, the pots should be plunged in a bed of fermenting leaves.

The following are a few of the best figs; those marked F, are good forcing sorts, and those marked W. suitable for walls:—

Agen: brownish-green, turbinate.

Brown Ischia, F.: chestnut-coloured, roundish-turbinate.

Brown Turkey (Lee’s Perpetual), F., W.: purplish-brown, turbinate.

Brunswick, W.: brownish-green, pyriform.

Col di Signora Bianca, F.: greenish-yellow, pyriform.

Col di Signora Nero: dark chocolate, pyriform.

Early Violet, F.: brownish-purple, roundish.

Grizzly Bourjassotte: chocolate, round.

Grosse Monstreuse de Lipari: pale chestnut, turbinate.

Negro Largo, F.: black, long pyriform.

White Ischia, F.: greenish-yellow, roundish-obovate.

White Marseilles, F., W.: pale green, roundish-obovate.

The sycamore fig, Ficus Sycomorus, is a tree of large size, with heart-shaped leaves, which, from their fancied resemblance to those of the mulberry, gave origin to the name Συκόμορος. From the deep shade cast by its spreading branches, it is a favourite tree in Egypt and Syria, being often planted along roads and near houses. It bears a sweet edible fruit, somewhat like that of the common fig, but produced in racemes on the older boughs. The apex of the fruit is sometimes removed, or an incision made in it, to induce earlier ripening. The ancients, after soaking it in water, preserved it like the common fig. The porous wood is only fit for fuel.

Figure 2.—India-rubber Tree, Ficus elastica, showing spreading woody roots.

The sacred fig, peepul, or bo, Ficus religiosa, a large tree with heart-shaped, long-pointed leaves on slender footstalks, is much grown in southern Asia. The leaves are used for tanning, and afford lac, and a gum resembling caoutchouc is obtained from the juice; but in India it is chiefly planted with a religious object, being regarded as sacred by both Brahmans and Buddhists. The former believe that the last avatar of Vishnu took place beneath its shade. A gigantic bo, described by Sir J. Emerson Tennent as growing near Anarajapoora, in Ceylon, is, if tradition may be trusted, one of the oldest trees in the world. It is said to have been a branch of the tree under which Gautama Buddha became endued with his divine powers, and has always been held in the greatest veneration. The figs, however, hold as important a place in the religious fables of the East as the ash in the myths of Scandinavia.

Ficus elastica, the India-rubber tree (figure 2), the large, oblong, glossy leaves, and pink buds of which are so familiar in our greenhouses, furnishes most of the caoutchouc obtained from the East Indies. It grows to a large size, and is remarkable for the snake-like roots that extend in contorted masses around the base of the trunk. The small fruit is unfit for food.

Ficus bengalensis, or the Banyan, wild in parts of northern India, but generally planted throughout the country, has a woody stem, branching to a height of 70 to 100 ft. and of vast extent with heart-shaped entire leaves terminating in acute points. Every branch from the main body throws out its own roots, at first in small tender fibres, several yards from the ground; but these continually grow thicker until they reach the surface, when they strike in, increase to large trunks, and become parent trees, shooting out new branches from the top, which again in time suspend their roots, and these, swelling into trunks, produce other branches, the growth continuing as long as the earth contributes her sustenance. On the bank’s of the Nerbudda stood a celebrated tree of this kind, which is supposed to be that described by Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander the Great. This tree once covered an area so immense, that it was known to shelter no fewer than 7000 men, and though much reduced in size by the destructive power of the floods, the remainder was described by James Forbes (1749–1819), in his Oriental Memoirs (1813–1815) as nearly 2000 ft. in circumference, while the trunks large and small exceeded 3000 in number. The tree usually grows from seeds dropped by birds on other trees. The leaf-axil of a palm forms a frequent receptacle for their growth, the palm becoming ultimately strangled by the growth of the fig, which by this time has developed numerous daughter stems which continue to expand and cover ultimately a large area. The famous tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta, began its growth at the end of the 18th century on a sacred date-palm. In 1907 it had nearly 250 aerial roots, the parent trunk was 42 ft. in girth, and its leafy crown had a circumference of 857 ft.; and it was still growing vigorously. Both this tree and F. religiosa cause destruction to buildings, especially in Bengal, from seeds dropped by birds germinating on the walls. The tree yields an inferior rubber, and a coarse rope is prepared from the bark and from the aerial roots.

  1. Of these the case of the Barren Fig-tree (Mark. xi. 12-14, 20-21: compare Matt. xxi. 18-20), which Jesus cursed and which then withered away, has been much discussed among theologians. The difficulty is in Mark xi. 13: “And seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon; and when he came to it he found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet.” These last words obviously raise the question whether the expectation of Jesus of finding figs, and his cursing of the tree on finding none, were not unreasonable. Many ingenious solutions have been propounded, by suggested emendations of the text and otherwise, for which consult M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature (sub “Fig”) and the Encyclopaedia Biblica (“Fig-tree”); the former demurs to the unreasonableness, and contends that the appearance of the leaves at this season (March) indicated a pretentious precocity in this particular fig-tree, so that Jesus was entitled to expect that it would also have fruit, even though the season had not arrived; the Ency. Biblica, on the other hand, supposes that some “early Christian,” confounding parable with history, has misunderstood the parable in Luke xiii. 6-9, and, forgetting that the season was not one for figs, has transformed it here into the narrative of an act of Jesus. The probability seems to be that the words “for the time of figs was not yet” are an unintelligent gloss by an early reader, which has made its way into the text. For authorities see the works mentioned above.
  2. From Lat. caprificus, a wild fig; O. Eng. caprifig.