Fig trees have played a role in Southern gardens for centuries. They not only yield delicious fruit, but they provide a picturesque tropical look for the landscape.
My introduction to fresh figs was during a visit to Charleston’s historic Glenwood Estate in the 1960s, home of Lucy Quarrier, my weaving, spinning and vegetable-dyeing mentor.
Figs are considered one of the earliest domesticated plants in the world. They are thought to be native to Asia Minor and Western Asia. Figs spread through the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions.
Archaeological research from the greater Mediterranean Sea area provides evidence parthenocarpic figs (those that do not require pollination) date between 11,700 and 10,500 years ago. This domestication of figs occurs at approximately the same time as rice domestication in Asia.
At some point, a mutation of the fig tree occurred that did not require pollination to bear fruit. Since parthenocarpic figs are not fertile, the only way they can be reproduced is by cutting a branch and rooting it.
The evidence recovered from early Neolithic sites in the Jordan and Euphrates valley is of parthenocarpic figs, which means humans propagated them. Parthenocarpic figs are also called persistent figs.
Spanish and Portuguese missionaries introduced figs to the New World. The first figs were brought to Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1577. Two years later, they were reported in St. Augustine, Florida. By 1629, they had been introduced to Virginia from Bermuda. Eight years later, they were said to be flourishing in Virginia.
Franciscan missionaries planted figs in mission gardens in San Diego and Santa Clara, California, in the late 1700s, a time when Thomas Jefferson, who was the United States minister to France, had fig cuttings sent to Monticello.
I contacted Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, to provide resource information. She is a Charleston native.
Gould suggested an article by Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, whose lecture I attended several years ago at the historic Hubbard House, home to the West Virginia Humanities Council. It coincidentally has one of the finest fig tree specimens in Charleston.
The cuttings Jefferson shipped from France were successfully planted when he returned to Monticello. His favorite fig was Marseilles, but he also grew brunswick, green ischia, angilica, osborn and brown turkey figs in his orchard below the kitchen garden. The south-facing beds provided the perfect microclimate for producing luscious fruit. Figs like a sunny spot protected from winter winds.
Jefferson’s passion for figs helped promote varieties in Virginia and throughout the United States. He shared new cultivars with friends and neighbors. The figs at Monticello today are not from the original trees Jefferson planted. They are a historical recreation, planted in 1984.
My small fig orchard began with a cutting from a brown turkey fig purchased at the Colonial Williamsburg garden. Some say the flavor is inferior to other varieties, but the plants can survive extremely cold temperatures, making them an ideal choice for local growers.
Sherri Lee, author of “Under the Fig Leaf,” says brown turkey figs are her favorite. She suggested, if you can only have one fig tree in your landscape, this is the one to choose. It will bear fruit from August through October.
Today, West Virginia gardeners and farmers are growing more figs. They are a unique crop. While they can be a bit finicky and require special care to prepare for winter temperatures, they do not generally suffer from insect or disease problems.
Fresh figs are delicate and highly perishable, which explains why they are not widely available in grocery stores. To guarantee a fresh supply, a fig tree in the landscape may be the answer. There is nothing better than the taste of a fresh fig warmed by the sun.
Almond Fig Cake
1 cup raw almonds (not blanched)
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon almond extract
10-12 ripe figs
1 tablespoon coarse sugar
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease a 9-inch fluted pan or pie pan.
Put almonds and ¼ cup sugar in a food processor and grind to a coarse powder.
Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
Pulse to combine.
Whisk together eggs, melted butter, honey and almond extract in a mixing bowl.
Add almond mixture and beat until batter is just mixed, about 1 minute.
Pour batter into prepared pan.
Remove the stem from each fig and cut in half.
Arrange fig halves on top of the batter with the cut side facing up.
Sprinkle the figs with coarse sugar. (I used Bourbon Smoked Sugar purchased at The Wild Ramp in Huntington.)
Bake the cake for 30 minutes or until golden outside and dry at the center when probed with a cake tester.
Cool before serving.
Warm Figs with Goat Cheese and Pistachios
goat cheese (I used Honey goat cheese from ALDI)
pistachios, lightly toasted
Position oven rack in upper part of the oven.
Remove the stem of the figs and cut a deep “X” on top.
Cut the goat cheese into small pieces and stuff into figs.
Broil the figs for about 4 minutes or until the cheese starts to bubble and brown.
Remove from oven. Top with toasted pistachios and drizzle with honey.