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The fig is full of surprises

Though it is sold as a fruit, the fig is actually a flower that is inverted into itself. The seeds are actually the fruit of the fig flower. This is just one of the many fig facts touted by the California Fig Advisory Board on its website — californiafigs.com.

Dried figs are used in the pharmaceutical industry as they contain an enzyme that is considered to be an aid to digestion. This proteolytic enzyme, also known as ficin, primarily contained in the stem of the fruit, helps to break down tissue and was for many years the major ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. Dried figs were first sold in a commercially manufactured cookie in 1892. They are often used in baking as figs contain a natural humectant — a chemical that will extend freshness and moistness in baked products.

Another chemical found in figs, Psoralens, has been used for thousands of years to treat skin pigmentation diseases. Psoralens that occur naturally in figs, some other plants and fungi, is a skin sensitizer that promotes tanning in the sun.

The fig is believed to have originated in southern Arabia, with ancient records show that the Sumerians and Assyrians were familiar with the product.

The cultivated fig industry appears to have begun in western Asia or Asia Minor, possibly in that center of ancient civilization known as Mesopotamia Figs spread slowly through Asia Minor and Syria to Mesopotamia, Persia and the Arabian Desert, becoming highly developed in Iran, Armenia, and Afghanistan. India first cultivated figs in the fourteenth century and edible native varieties can still be found growing in the Punjab hills.

The first verifiable report of figs in China was reported in the fourteenth century as well, and it is assumed that by then they were firmly established in the Far East.

Evidence indicates that the fig industry spread by the Phoenicians and the Greeks throughout the Old World, and that their efforts resulted in the introduction of figs along the African coast, Spain, Portugal, and up to the English Channel by the end of the 14th century and prior to introduction into Greece and Italy.

Figs were first introduced into the New World by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, most notably to the West Indies in 1520 and to Peru in 1528. From the West Indies, Greece, and France, figs quickly spread across the southeastern United States where they are most commonly known as a dooryard tree rather than a thriving commercial industry. They were imported from the West Indies to Spanish missions in Mexico and subsequently spread to California with the Franciscan missionaries who planted them in the mission gardens at San Diego in 1769 and up the Pacific coast to Santa Clara by 1792, Ventura by 1793, and later on to Sonoma, giving the name Mission to those first dark purple California figs.

Along with the rush for gold, American settlers brought a wide variety of figs to California, and by 1867 there were over 1,000 acres of fig trees in the Sacramento Valley and 35 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The most popular variety, the White Adriatic fig, was planted in a 27-acre orchard in Fresno as early as 1885, and produced the first carload of dried figs shipped by rail to the east in 1889.

In the early 1900s, fig orchards covered much of the area that is within the city limits of Fresno today. By 1931, California had 57,278 acres of figs, with virtually all of it located in the central San Joaquin Valley. Figs require full sunlight for maximum fruit production.

Figs are easy to grow in warm climates, but produce their best fruit in Mediterranean climates with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. In the ground, fig plants can quickly reach 15 to 30 feet in height. The canopy can spread equally wide.

FIG VARIETIES

In California, there are six primary varieties of figs: 

* Black Mission (dried/fresh). Purple and black skin with deep earthy flavor like a Cabernet. Available mid-May through November

* Calimyrna (dried/fresh). Pale yellow skin with a buttery and nutty flavor like a Chardonnay. Available July through September.

* Kadota (dried/fresh). Creamy amber skin with a light flavor like a Sauvignon Blanc. Available mid-June through October.

* Brown Turkey (fresh). Light purple to black skin with robust flavor like a Pinot Noir. Available mid-May through December.

* Sierras (dried/fresh). Light-colored skin with a fresh, sweet flavor like a Riesling. Available June through November.

* Tiger Figs (fresh). Relatively new variety. Light yellow color with unique dark green stripes and a bright red-purple interior fruit with fruity, raspberry, citrus flavor. Available mid-July through November.