In the Garden: “I Don’t Give a Fig!”

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Ficus elastica (rubber plant)

In 1969 the series Civilization debuted on BBC, and shortly afterward it made it to Public Television in the United States. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it at the time—and now I can actually see it in color on a big screen!—but the vestiges of one line have always stuck with me. Host Kenneth Clark opined that, “Mr. X didn’t give a fig about such-and-such!” True, I don’t recall who was not caring a fig about what, but I definitely remember the fig part.

I certainly got the gist of what Clark was saying, but I always wondered about the use of the word “fig” in this context. Some noodling around on the internet provided the answer. But this is a family publication, so I’ll leave it to the reader to pursue “fig” in this usage.

As a gardening column, we do have to ask, “What about the actual fig plant?” There are approximately 800 species of Ficus, all members of the Mulberry family, the Moraceae, and native to the tropics and warm temperate zones.

Given their affinity for warm temperatures, much of our experience with fig plants comes either from indoor settings, or via visits to the tropics. One of the most common indoor plants, especially in commercial settings, the weeping fig, Ficus benjamina, is often just sold as Ficus, frequently with braided trunks.  Native to Asia and Australia and generally easy to grow, this Ficus does resent being moved and may drop its leaves temporarily. I owned a ficus for many years, and it survived several moves. Eventually it became too big to move, although it may still be living in Baltimore. Like all members of this genus, Ficus has a milky sap that can produce a reaction in those allergic to latex.  More importantly, many people can experience burns when exposure is combined with exposure to sunlight. Be careful.

Also popular as an indoor plant, the Fiddle-leaf Fig (F. lyrata) has become so trendy in recent years that some fashionistas have declared a moratorium on the plant, complaining of “fiddle-leaf fatigue.” Ficus elastica, the rubber plant, also is frequently seen in offices and homes. Although its sap can be used to produce rubber, natural rubber typically comes from Hevea brasiliensis, an unrelated tree from the Amazon basin.

Banyans are a type of Ficus that begin life as an epiphyte in the crown of a tree, sprouting from seeds deposited by birds. The banyan sends roots down the trunk of its host, which eventually reach the ground and start taking up water and nutrients. As the roots grow, they start to encircle the tree, yielding another common name, strangler fig. You can see a couple of native strangler fig species in South Florida.

Ficus benghalesnsis is a large species of banyan, and the national tree of India. A well-known specimen, known as The Great Banyan, grows near Kolkata. Although its height is only 79 feet, the circumference of the crown is about 1,500 feet, meaning that the tree and its 3,700 aerial roots cover almost five acres. Impressive in pictures, I can only imagine what it’s like to see in person. I can understand why banyans figure prominently in Asian religions and mythology.

One ornamental species of Ficus could be grown in Albemarle County, but just barely. The evergreen creeping fig (F. pumila) runs along the ground and climbs trees and walls. The younger leaves on creeping fig are small and delicate; on older stems the leaves are much larger and thicker.  Once temperatures fall much below twenty, the plant will show varying degrees of damage, notably loss of leaves or stem dieback almost to the ground. Suitable for the adventurous gardener.

Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig)

The fig we’re most likely to see in our part of the world is the common fig, Ficus carica.  This deciduous large shrub/small tree hailing from Western Asia and the Mediterranean is easily hardy to Zone 7, and some varieties reportedly can be grown in Zone 5b (‘Chicago Hardy’). Cold may kill the stems, but the roots will survive and resprout.  Several other varieties are available, with differing fruit color and taste. I’ll confess that I’ve never eaten a fig fruit, instead preferring the variety commonly known as Fig Newton. Why the “Newton” part of the name? The cookies were first produced at the F.A. Kennedy Steam Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1891 and named after the town of Newton, seven miles to the west. I’m not sure why they picked the town of Newton, but “Fig Cambridges” just doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

The story of fig flowers and how they’re pollinated is strange almost beyond belief. The “flowers,” actually consisting of many small true flowers, are enclosed inside what is essentially an inside-out flower, or capsule, that we actually see. A small hole in the capsule allows a tiny wasp to enter and lay eggs and pollinate the flowers. A new generation of wasps then tunnels out of the flower to repeat the process.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around this, but watching a video might be helpful.  Try “Are There Dead Wasps Inside Figs?” from the Gross Science series, a production of WGBH, the Boston PBS station.

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Historic Garden Week, hosted by the Garden Club of Virginia, returns on Saturday, April 17, 2021 and runs each day through Saturday, April 24 across the Commonwealth.  Of particular interest to Gazette readers are the three gardens in Charlottesville, one in the Lewis Mountain neighborhood, another in North Downtown, and the third in the Barracks/Rugby neighborhood. These gardens will be open on Sunday April 18 only, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, a very limited number of timed tickets will be available. Please visit vagardenweek.org for more information and to order your tickets. Tickets are expected to sell out, so don’t delay! 

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