Fig time

A couple days ago I caught a snippet of a discussion on KQED-FM about overwintering fig plants. Why people were discussing the topic as we near the beginning of summer I don’t know, but there it was. I’m not caring for any fig plants here in Palo Alto, but back when I lived in Columbus OH most of the year I had two: a Ficus benjamina, a very common house plant in temperate climates; and a Ficus carica, the plant the people on the radio were talking about (an ornamental and the source of the figs we eat), which I grew in Columbus as a potted plant, to serve as a reminder of California.

Now some figgy reflections, starting with some Ficus plants and then wandering on to other fig-related matters: the fig leaf of modesty, figgy pudding, Fig Newtons, and the negative polarity item care/give a fig.

Plants: Ficus carica.From Wikipedia:

Ficus carica is a species of flowering plant in the genus Ficus, from the family Moraceae, known as the common fig (or just the fig). It is the source of the fruit also called the fig, and as such is an important crop in those areas where it is grown commercially. Native to the Middle East and western Asia, it has been sought out and cultivated since ancient times, and is now widely grown throughout the temperate world, both for its fruit and as an ornamental plant.

… Although commonly referred to as a fruit, the fig is actually the infructescence or scion of the tree, known as a false fruit or multiple fruit, in which the flowers and seeds are borne. It is a hollow-ended stem containing many flowers. The small orifice (ostiole) visible on the middle of the fruit is a narrow passage, which allows the specialized fig wasp Blastophaga psenes to enter the fruit and pollinate the flower, whereafter the fruit grows seeds.

Yes, it flowers on the inside, and is pollinated there by a wasp. A drawing showing the leaves and the “fruit”, inside and out:


There are a great many varieties.

Plants: Ficus benjamina. From Wikipedia:

Ficus benjamina, commonly known as the weeping fig, Benjamin’s fig, or ficus tree and often sold in stores as just ficus, is a species of flowering plant in the family Moraceae, native to south and southeast Asia and Australia. It is the official tree of Bangkok. It is a tree reaching 30 metres (98 ft) tall in natural conditions, with gracefully drooping branchlets and glossy leaves 6–13 cm (2–5 in), oval with an acuminate tip.

Like F. carica, the weeping fig is not very frost-hardy, so that in temperate climates it’s grown as a houseplant, in a pot:


Plants: banyans. On to the big figs. From Wikipedia:

Ficus macrophylla, commonly known as the Moreton Bay fig, is a large evergreen banyan tree of the Moraceae family that is a native of most of the eastern coast of Australia, from the Atherton Tableland (17° S) in the north to the Illawarra (34° S) in New South Wales, and Lord Howe Island. Its common name is derived from Moreton Bay in Queensland, Australia. It is best known for its beautiful buttress roots.

Ficus macrophylla is widely used as a feature tree in public parks and gardens in warmer climates such as California, Portugal, Italy (Sicily, Sardinia and Liguria), northern New Zealand (Auckland), and Australia. Old specimens can reach tremendous size. Its aggressive root system allows its use in only the largest private gardens.

Here’s a giant from Klama in New South Wales:


On banyan with both specific and more generic uses, from Wikipedia:

A Banyan … is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte (a plant growing on another plant) when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree (or on structures like buildings and bridges). “Banyan” often refers specifically to the Indian banyan (Ficus benghalensis), which is the national tree of the Republic of India, though the term has been generalized to include all figs that share a characteristic life cycle [like F. macrophylla]

The fig leaf of modesty. Fig plants are ornamentals, shade trees. sources of food — and also providers of cover for genitals. From Wikipedia:

A fig leaf is widely used figuratively to convey the covering up of an act or an object that is embarrassing or distasteful with something of innocuous appearance, a metaphorical reference to the Biblical Book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity after eating the fruit from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. Some paintings and statues have the genitals of their subjects covered by a representation of an actual fig leaf or similar object, either as part of the work or added afterwards for perceived modesty.

Figgy pudding. On to food uses of the fruit. From Wikipedia:

Figgy pudding is a pudding resembling a paler coloured Christmas pudding containing figs. The pudding may be baked, steamed in the oven, boiled or fried.

Figgy pudding dates back to 16th century England.

… Today, the term figgy pudding is popularized mainly by the Christmas carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” which includes the line, “Now bring us some figgy pudding” in the chorus.

Fig Newtons. Another food use. From Wikipedia:

Newtons are a Nabisco trademarked version of the fig roll, a pastry filled with fig paste. Their distinctive shape is a characteristic that has been adopted by many competitors including generic fig bars sold in many markets.

… A Philadelphia baker and fig-lover Charles Roser in 1891 invented and then patented a machine which inserted fig paste into a thick pastry dough. Cambridgeport, Massachusetts-based Kennedy Biscuit Company purchased the Roser recipe and started mass production. The first Fig Newtons were baked at the F. A. Kennedy Steam Bakery in 1891. The product was named “Newton” after the city of Newton, Massachusetts.

… As of 2012, in addition to the original fig filling, Nabisco also makes several varieties of the Newton, including apple cinnamon, strawberry, raspberry, and mixed berry

It hadn’t occurred to me that the cookies were named after Newton MA.


Giving a fig.The British English Dictionary and Thesaurus on the Cambridge dictionaries site lists the idiom not care/give a fig:

old-fashioned   to not be at all worried by or interested in something

This entry treats not as part of the idiom, but that’s not quite right. In reality, the idiom is care/give a fig, and it’s a negative polarity item, an item that normally occurs in the scope of negation (whether expressed by not or not: nor does he give a fig about/for our efforts; no one cares a fig about us) or questions (Do they give a fig for our interests?).

An extra. Just in, an addition to the fig-related inventory: a gesture. From Wikipedia:

The fig sign … is a mildly obscene gesture used in Turkish and Slavic cultures and some other cultures that uses two fingers and a thumb, but [is] not equal to the finger in Anglo-American culture.

The finger position is an approximate representation of glans penis, which is reflected in the name (in Russian “шиш”, literally “pine cone”, is a metonym for penis or tip of the penis), or of a clitoris, also reflected in the name (in many languages fig is a euphemism for vulva). This gesture is most commonly used to refuse giving of aid or to disagree with the target of gesture.


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