Figuring out Figs

Figs (Ficus carica) belong to the family Moraceae, along with banyan, breadfruit, mulberry, and Osage-orange.

Figs likely originated in southern Arabia. They have been cultivated for thousands of years: remnants of figs having been found in excavations of Neolithic sites traced to at least 5,000 BC. Sumerians and Assyrians were familiar with them. Figs spread slowly through Asia Minor and Syria to Mesopotamia, where they were likely first cultivated. They spread to Persia, and became highly developed in Armenia and Afghanistan. Figs spread to Egypt, then ancient Crete.

Around the 9th century BC, figs arrived in ancient Greece, where they became a staple in the traditional diet. Figs were so important to the Greeks that they created laws forbidding the export of the best-quality figs.

The Phoenicians and the Greeks spread fig cultivation throughout the Old World, resulting in the introduction of figs along the African coast, Spain, Portugal and Italy. In ancient Rome, they were revered as a sacred fruit. According to Roman myth, the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was aware of at least 29 varieties of figs. As time went on, figs were cultivated from Afghanistan to southern Germany and the Canary Islands. 

India first cultivated figs in the 14th century and edible native varieties still grow in the Punjab hills. The first report of figs in China was in the 14th century as well.

Figs were first introduced to the West Indies in 1520 and to Peru in 1528 by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. From the West Indies, figs quickly spread across southeastern North America. Figs arrived in England by 1548. By 1550, they were growing in Chinese gardens. European varieties were taken to China, Japan, India, South Africa, and Australia. Figs from the West Indies were planted at Spanish missions in Mexico in 1560.

Figs reached Virginia in 1669. From Virginia, they spread to the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Fig trees were planted in Bermuda in early times and were common around Bahamian plantations in Colonial days. They became a familiar garden plants in the West Indies, and at medium and low altitudes in Central America and northern South America.

Figs spread from Mexico 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. Later, California orchards received many special varieties from Europe and the eastern United States.

Settlers brought a wide variety of plants to California during the Gold Rush, 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 Smyrna fig was brought to California’s San Joaquin Valley from Turkey in 1882. 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 1891, James Henry Mitchell invented a machine which worked like a funnel within a funnel. The outside funnel pumped out a hose of dough, while the inside funnel filled the hose, which was then cut into smaller pieces. That same year, Charles M. Roser created a recipe for a pastry filled with fig jam, and sold the recipe to the Kennedy Biscuit Works (later called Nabisco). Later that year, the Kennedy Biscuit Works used Mitchell’s invention to mass-produce Roser’s recipe. Kennedy Biscuits had a tradition of naming cookies and crackers after the surrounding towns near Boston, the home of Kennedy Biscuits. The cookies were named after the Massachusetts town of Newton.

The White Adriatic remained popular until the 20th century, but its quality when dried was inferior to imported figs, leading to the introduction of the Lob Injir variety of Smyrna fig. This new introduction grew and produced fruit, but it all dropped by early summer, never maturing and ripening. In 1890 George Christian Roeding demonstrated that in order to set fruit, the Smyrna figs needed to be pollinated by hanging male flowering caprifig branches in the Smyrna fig trees to facilitate pollen transfer by a fig wasp. Caprifigs imported by Walter Tennyson Swingle from Asia Minor, Smyrna, Mexico, Greece, and Algeria resulted in the successful introduction of the specific blastophaga (fig) wasp needed for pollinating the Smyrna figs. The California commercial fig industry was born on June 23, 1899, and the golden-brown Smyrna fig was renamed Calimyrna in honor of its new homeland.

Jesse Clayton Forkner purchased 6,000 acres near Fresno and planted figs in 1910, blasting holes through the hardpan with dynamite so that tree roots could get through to the deep soil beneath. Forkner subdivided and sold this land so that people could own a fig orchard, build a home, and be prosperous on an average holding of 16 acres per owner. About at that time, fig orchards covered much of the area that is within today’s city limits of Fresno. By 1931, California had 57,278 acres of figs, with virtually all of it located in the central San Joaquin Valley.

In Venezuela, figs are in great demand by fruit processors. Because of the inadequate supply, a program was launched in 1960 to encourage commercial plantings. The Colombian Agricultural Institute realized that fig growing should be encouraged and established an experimental plantation in 1973. By 1976, fresh figs were regarded as highly desirable luxuries in Colombia. The results of the experimental plantings were so favorable that the Institute circulated an advisory bulletin to farmers in 1977, including improved methods of cultivation, costs of production, and potential revenue.

There are fig plantations on mountainsides of Honduras and at low elevations on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. The common fig is grown from Florida to northern South America and in India. Chile and Argentina grow species suited to cooler cooler climates.

Figs can:

  1. Help you lose weight. Figs are a good source of fiber, which may have a positive effect on weight management.
  2. Fight cancer. The fiber in figs binds to cancer-causing toxins in your colon and keeps them away from the healthy colon cells. Fig leaves also inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer cells. Postmenopausal women who consume the most fruit fiber may reduce their breast cancer risk by 34%.
  3. Promote cardiovascular health. The fiber in figs reduces high cholesterol levels by binding with the bile acids that your body uses to make cholesterol. Fiber isn’t absorbed, so when it exits the body in the feces, it takes the cholesterol-containing bile acids with it. As a result, your body ends up with less cholesterol, which your liver then pulls from your blood to make more bile, lowering your cholesterol levels. Eating a high-fiber diet not only reduces your total cholesterol, it also reduces your triglyceride levels (a form in which fats circulate in the bloodstream), and your  Very Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL–the most dangerous form of cholesterol) levels. Fig leaves can also lower levels of triglycerides. Figs are a good source of potassium, a mineral that regulates muscle contraction, including heart rythym, and lowers blood pressure by counteracting the detrimental effects of sodium and regulating fluid balance. The vitamin B6 in figs helps lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic cycle. Elevated blood levels of homocysteine are a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, or peripheral vascular disease.
  4. Build strong bodiesPotassium in figs stores carbohydrates for muscles to use as fuel, promotes regular muscle growth, and maintains the density and strength of bones by decreasing urinary calcium loss. The vitamin B6 in figs supports a wide range of activities in your nervous system, promotes proper breakdown of sugars and starches. Manganese in figs activates enzymes for using several key nutrients, helps synthesize fatty acids and cholesterol, and facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism and formation of bone.
  5. Fight free radicalsManganese in figs is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells).
  6. Reduce insulin dependence in diabetics. Fig leaves have antidiabetic properties and can actually reduce the amount of insulin needed by people with diabetes who require insulin injections. 
  7. Protect against macular degeneration. Eating 3 or more servings of fruit per day may lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the primary cause of vision loss in older adults, by 36%, compared to persons who consume less than 1.5 servings of fruit daily.

Nutrients in 1 Medium Fresh Fig (50 grams)

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

fiber

1.45 g

5.80%

potassium

116.00 mg

3.31%

carbohydrates

9.59 g

3.20%

vitamin B6

0.06 mg

3.00%

manganese

0.06 mg

3.00%

vitamin K

2.35 mcg

2.94%

magnesium

8.50 mg

2.12%

Calories

37.00

2.06%

thiamine

0.03 mg

2.00%

calcium

17.50 mg

1.75%

vitamin C

1.00 mg

1.67%

pantothenic acid

0.15 mg

1.50%

copper

0.03 mg

1.50%

vitamin A

71.00 IU

1.42%

riboflavin

0.02 mg

1.18%

iron

0.19 mg

1.06%

niacin

0.20 mg

1%

protein

0.38 g

0.76%

folate

3.00 mcg

0.75%

phosphorus

7.00 mg

0.70%

choline

2.35 mg

0.55%

zinc

0.07 mg

0.47%

vitamin E

0.06 mg

0.30%

chloride

9.00 mg

0.26%

fat

0.15 g

0.23%

selenium

0.10 mcg

0.14%

sodium

0.50 mg

0.02%

California figs are available from June through September. Some European figs are often available throughout autumn. Dried figs are available throughout the year.

Because fresh figs are highly perishable, purchase them only a day or two before you are planning on eating them. Look for figs that have a rich, deep color and are plump with firm stems and a mildly sweet fragrance. Avoid figs that are mushy, bruised, or sour-smelling, which is an indication that they may be spoiled. For the most antioxidants, choose fully ripened figs. Look for dried figs that are relatively soft, free of mold, and have a mellow, pleasant smell.

Keep ripe figs in the refrigerator, where they will stay fresh for about two days. Because they have a delicate nature and can easily bruise, store them on a paper towel-lined plate or shallow container, and cover or wrap them that they do not dry out, get crushed or pick up odors from other foods. Keep slightly under-ripe figs on a plate at room temperature, away from direct sunlight. Dried figs will stay fresh for several months if you keep them well wrapped in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator.

Before eating or cooking figs, wash them under cool water. Gently remove the stem and wipe them dry.

You can eat dried figs as-is, use them in a recipe as-is, or simmer them for several minutes in water or fruit juice to make them plumper and juicier.

Some serving ideas:

  • Add dried or fresh figs to oatmeal or any other whole grain breakfast porridge.
  • Make a sweet snack by blending dates, figs, raisins, and tahini, then rolling balls of the mixture into coconut flakes, cocoa, or carob powder
  • Poach figs in fruit juice or red wine and serve them with non-dairy yogurt or frozen desserts.
  • Add quartered figs to a salad of fennel and arugula sprinkled with No-Harm Parm.
  • Stuff fresh figs with Tofu Feta and chopped almonds and serve as hors d’oeuvres or desserts.

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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