“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” – Epictetus
Despite Epictetus’s entreaty, figs don’t “flower”: the fruit is the flower. The black or green orb we eat is called a syconium (from the Greek sykon, “fig”). It is what botanists call an “enclosed inflorescence” because hundreds of tiny thread-like male and female flowers grow inside the urn-like fruit.
So how do figs get fertilised? They rely on wasps. Each species of fig – and there are nearly 1,000 of them recorded – has evolved with its own species of pollinating fig wasp. They are very small – less than 2mm long in most cases, and their lives are short and unpleasant. The female wasp crawls in through a tiny hole in the bottom of the fig called an ostiole (from the Latin ostium, “opening”).
The female gets pretty badly beaten up squeezing into the ostiole, losing her wings and other non-essential kit like antennae. Her legs are covered in pollen, and her backside is full of eggs, both of which she spreads around liberally, simultaneously laying eggs in and fertilising the different flowers. Then she dies and is absorbed into the fig. The male fig wasp is basically a penis with big jaws; after hatching he bites a hole through the flower wall and impregnates the hatching females. He then chews a tunnel for his pregnant pollen-dusted female to escape from the fig. Like plucky POWs, they even team up with other males to tunnel together, ensuring the pregnant females a better chance of escape – a rare example of co-operation in nature.
Despite this, you are unlikely to have inadvertently ingested thousands of fig wasps. Our edible figs are usually varieties of the common fig (Ficus carica), one of the few non-tropical deciduous varieties (and, yes, it does have its own pollinator wasp with the rather rakish name of Blastophaga psenes). It produces two kinds of trees: one that grows pollen-bearing syconia, and the other seed-bearing. We propagate the seed-bearing trees, so although they get pollinated by a female wasp, they have the wrong type of flowers for her to lay eggs in. And some varieties have even been bred to be self-pollinating.
Most of the 1,000 species are tropical and 70 per cent of the animal life in the rainforest depends on them. They are a “keystone” species: no figs, no jungle. Birds, bats, monkeys, gibbons, insects – all run on figs. They are sweet – which means they are high in energy – and the trees can fruit/flower several times a year. Timing is the clue to their cunning wasp-based reproductive technique: it protects them from accidental crossbreeding. Over 80 million years they have evolved a system whereby each distinct species of fig fruits at a particular time. This ensures a better chance that their seeds are eaten and dispersed (rather than all appearing at once and rotting on the branches). The fig café is open all the time; it just serves different brands of fig at different times of the year.
The Isle of Wight once was covered in tropical forest. The oldest fig wasp fossil ever to have been found comes from there. Dated to 34 million years ago, it is practically identical to its modern descendants.
The sweetness of figs made them a popular food for Mediterranean geese. The word for “liver” in French (foie), Spanish (higado), Italian (fegato) and Portuguese (figado) all derive from ficus, the Latin for a fig.
Giving a fig
The root of the word fig is ancient, possibly even pre-Indo-European (there is a Phoenician word, pagh, meaning a “half-ripe fig”); and you can’t delve too far into its history without stumbling upon the split fruit’s supposed similarity to the female genitalia (sykon was also the Greek word for “vulva”; figa has the same colloquial meaning in modern Italian).
D H Lawrence got very excited about figs: in his poem “Figs” (paraphrased by Alan Bates in Ken Russell’s film of Women in Love), he says “Now, the secret/Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips/That laugh at the Lord’s indignation”.