1902 Encyclopedia > Fig


FIG, the popular name given to plants of the genus Ficus, an extensive group, included in the natural order Moracece, and characterized by a remarkable develop-ment of the pear-shaped receptacle, the edge of which curves inwards, so as to form a nearly closed cavity, bear-ing the numerous fertile and sterile flowers mingled on its surface (see BOTANY, fig. 150). The figs vary greatly in habit,—some being low trailing shrubs, others gigantic trees, among the most striking forms of those tropical forests to which they are chiefly indigenous. They have alternate leaves, and abound in a milky juice, usually acrid, though in a few instances sufficiently mild to be used for allaying thirst. This juice contains caoutchouc in large quantity.

Ficus Carica, which yields the well-known figs of commerce, is a bush or small tree, rarely more than 18 or 20 feet high,—with broad, rough, deciduous leaves, very deeply lobed in the cultivated varieties, but in the wild plant sometimes nearly entire. The green, rough branches bear the solitary, nearly sessile receptacles in the axils of the leaves. The male flowers are placed chiefly in the upper part of the cavity, and in most varieties are few in number. As it ripens, the receptacle enlarges greatly, and the numerous single-seeded pericarps become imbedded in it. The fruit of the wild fig never acquires the succulence of the cultivated kinds. The fig seems to be indigenous to Asia Minor and Syria, but now occurs in a wild state in most of the countries around the Mediterranean. From the ease with which the nutritious fruit can be pre-served, it was probably one of the earliest objects of culti-vation, as may be inferred from the frequent allusions to it in the Hebrew Scriptures. From a passage in Herodotus the fig would seem to have been unknown to the Persians in the days of the first Cyrus; but it must have spread in remote ages over all the districts around the ^Egean and Levant. The Greeks are said to have received it from Caria (hence the specific name); but the fruit so improved under Hellenic culture that Attic figs became celebrated throughout the East, and special laws were made to regu-late their exportation. From the contemptuous name given to informers against the violation of those enactments, <rvKo<j>dvTai (O-VKOV and <f>aivui), our modern word sycophant is traced. The fig was one of the principal articles of sus-tenance among the Greeks; the Spartans especially used it largely at their public tables. From Hellas, at some prehistoric period, it was transplanted to Italy and the adjacent islands. Pliny enumerates many varieties, and alludes to those from Ebusus (the modern Ivica) as most esteemed by Roman epicures; while he describes those of home growth as furnishing a large portion of the food of the slaves, particularly those employed in agriculture, by whom great quantities were eaten in the fresh state at the periods of fig-harvest. In Latin myths the plant plays an import-ant part. Held sacred to Bacchus it was employed in religious ceremonies ; and the fig-tree that overshadowed the twin founders of Rome in the wolfs cave, as an emblem of the future prosperity of the race, testified to the high value set upon the fruit by the nations of antiquity. The tree is now cultivated in all the Mediterranean countries, but the larger portion of our supply of figs comes from Asia Minor, the Spanish Peninsula, and the south of France. Those of Asiatic Turkey are considered the best. The varieties are extremely numerous, and the fruit is of various colours, from deep purple to yellow, or nearly white: The trees usually bear two crops,—one in the early summer from the buds of the last year, the other in the autumn from those on the spring growth ; the latter forms the chief harvest. Many of the immature receptacles drop off from imperfect fertilization, which circumstance has led, from very ancient times, to the practice of caprification. Branches of the wild fig in flower are placed over the cultivated bushes. Certain hymenopterous insects, of the genera Blastophaga and Sycophaga, which frequent the wild fig, enter the minute orifice of the receptacle, apparently to deposit their eggs; conveying thus the pollen more com-pletely to the stigmas, they ensure the fertilization and consequent ripening of the fruit. By some the nature of the process has been questioned, and the better maturation of the fruit attributed merely to the stimulus given by the puncture of the insect, as in the case of the apple; but the arrangement of the unisexual flowers in the fig renders the first theory the more probable. In some districts a straw or small twig is thrust into the receptacle with a similar object. When ripe the figs are picked, and spread out to dry in the sun,—those of better quality being much pulled and extended by hand during the process. Thus prepared, the fruit is packed closely in barrels, rush baskets, or wooden boxes, for commerce. The best kind, known as elemi, are shipped at Smyrna, where the pulling and pack-ing of figs form one of the most important industries of the people.

This fruit still constitutes a large part of the food of the natives of western Asia and southern Europe, both in the fresh and dried state. A sort of cake made by mashing up the inferior kinds serves in parts of the Archipelago as a substitute,for bread j mixed with almonds, a similar pre-paration is sold in the streets of our large towns, and eaten as a luxury by the poor, under the name of "fig-cake." Alcohol is obtained from 'fermented figs in some southern countries; and a kind of wine, still made from the ripe fruit, was known to the ancients, and mentioned by Pliny under the name of sycites. Medicinally the fig is employed as a gentle laxative, when eaten abundantly often proving useful in chronic constipation; it forms a part of the well-known " confection of senna." Cut open, the fruit is a popular cataplasm for boils and sores, an application as old as the days of Hezekiah. It is recommended as a demulcent in disorders of the throat, being given in the form of decoction. The milky juice of the stems and leaves is very acrid, and has been used in some countries for raising blisters. The wood is porous and of little value; though a piece, satur-ated with oil and spread with emery, is in France a common substitute for a hone.

The fig is grown for its fresh fruit (eaten as an article of dessert) in all the milder parts of Europe, and in the United States, with protection in winter, succeeds as far north as Pennsylvania. In England it is usually trained against a wall, and sheltered with mats or branches in severe frosts, though in some warm places near the southern coast small plantations of standard bushes exist; one of the oldest is probably that at Tarring, near Worth-ing. The tree is propagated by cuttings or layers; it requires care in pruning, and the immature fruit, formed late in summer, should be removed to strengthen the shoots. The crop ripens in August and September. The fig was introduced into England by Cardinal Pole, from Italy, early in the 16 th century.

The Sycamore Fig, Ficus Sycornorus, is a tree of large size, with heart-shaped leaves, which, from their fancied resem-blance to those of the mulberry, gave origin to the name %vK.6fji.opo<s. From the deep shade cast by its spreading branches, it is a favourite tree in Egypt and Syria, being often planted along roads and near houses. It bears a sweet edible fruit, somewhat like that of the common fig, but produced in racemes on the older boughs. The apex of the fruit is sometimes removed, or an incision made in it, to induce earlier ripening. The ancients, after soaking it in water, preserved it like the common fig. The porous wood is only fit for fuel.

The Sacred Fig, Pippul, or Bo, Ficus religiosa, a large tree with heart-shaped, long-pointed leaves on slender footstalks, is much grown in southern Asia. The leaves are used for tanning, and afford lac, and some caoutchouc is obtained from the juice; but in India it is chiefly planted with a reli-gious object, being regarded as sacred by both Brahmans and Buddhists. The formerbelieve that the last avatar of Vishnu took place beneath its shade. A gigantic bo, described by Emerson Tennent as growing near Anarajapoora, in Ceylon, is, if tradition may be trusted, one of the oldest trees in the world. It is said to have been a branch of the tree under which Gautama Buddha became endued with his divine powers, and has always been held in the greatest veneration. The figs, however, hold as important a place in the religious fables of the East as the ash in the myths of Scandinavia.

Ficus elastica, the India-rubber Tree, the large, oblong, glossy leaves, and pink buds of which are so familiar in our greenhouses, furnishes most of the caoutchouc obtained from the East Indies. It grows to a large size, and is remarkable for the snake-like roots that extend in contorted masses around the base of the trunk. The small fruit is unfit for food. For the BANYAN see vol. iii. p. 348.

The trade in the edible fig is one of long standing, and of considerable importance in the regions devoted to the cultivation of the tree. Figs are easily preserved by simply drying in the sun, the grape sugar which they contain in abundance being thus rendered available for their preservation. Recently the practice of preserving fresh undried figs in tins has been adopted, but the amount used in that form is as yet insignificant compared with the
quantities preserved by drying. Of the dried and pressed fruit the import into Great Britain alone averages from six to seven thousand tons annually, the following being the official returns for the five years ended 1876:—
Cwts. Value. Duty.
1872 141,847 -£231,571 £38,885
1873 120,347 220,413 35,021
1874 74,168 149,089 23,685
1875 124,609 252,022 32,749
1876 163,163 318,717 39,925

The greater part (about four-fifths) of these imports comes from Asia Minor, the remainder being produced in various Mediterranean countries. (c. p. J.)

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