This is what a lush, ripe Brown Turkey fig looks like. Notice the stretch marks. That means it is bursting with flavor.
During fig season, I can see these dark, plump jewels sunning themselves on the tree from every vantage point in my backyard. First, they tempt and then they taunt me until I finally find myself risking life and limb to get to them. Often, I have to climb a ladder and use a long garden tool like a bow rake to grab and pull down a limb, and then reach even further to pluck one from a branch. This all happens first thing in the morning while the outside temperatures are still tolerable. My friend Linda calls it #pajamagardening.
There are others who desire the same figs. I am in constant competition with small birds, the squirrels in the neighborhood, and my chickens. They know they can eat figs to their heart’s content without fear of being seen by predatory hawks when under the canopy of the broad, palmate-shaped fig leaves.
Here’s a video of one of my chickens reaching for a fig. It is best watched in full screen mode. My friend Carrington calls it #rubberchicken.
Ina would use the big leaves to line a cheese platter. Just sayin’.
Fig trees are native to tropical climates, but a few varieties, such as Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, have been cultivated to grow in cooler climes (zones 6-11). We planted our tree in front of a southern-facing brick wall so the heat stored in the bricks could warm the tree during winter. Additionally, and this was purely happenstance, our air-conditioner’s condensate pipe drips over the roots all summer long keeping the tree well-hydrated.
Our fig production and access capabilities quadrupled after I pruned the tallest limbs by almost half last March. Later, in April, my husband fertilized the roots with chicken manure. Now the tree is shaped like a sprawling ball and is loaded with figs.
Everything you wanted to know about fig reproduction, but were afraid to ask.
One of my hobbies is studying plant reproduction. All fruits and vegetables start with a flower that once pollinated starts to grow a pod with either one seed in it, like a peach, or many seeds, such as apples and tomatoes. Botanically, the seed pod is known as an ovary. Aggravating as it may feel when a squirrel or chipmunk runs off with a peach or a tomato you have patiently watched ripen, they are doing what nature intended — they are dispersing seeds. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we like our fruits and vegetables. She cares about plant reproduction and species survival.
With that in mind, the first thing I noticed when my tree started producing fruit was the absence of flowers. This photo was taken on April 7th as fig pods and leaves appeared. The pods emerged from the branches but were never preceded by a flower.
This begged the question, How does the fig reproduce without flowers? It turns out the flowers are inside the fig. Hundreds of them! The color inside a fig comes from its flowers.
Last summer, the producer and host of Nashville Public Television’s The Volunteer Gardener came to my garden to film a segment featuring Jeremy Lekich, an expert on edible landscapes and owner of Nashville Foodscapes. In the show, Jeremy takes viewers around my yard and introduces them to many unusual edibles and explains fig pollination. You can watch the segment here.
By virtue of where the flowers are located, pollination needs to take place inside the fig. To move pollen from a male fig to a female requires the presence of specialized fig wasps who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with figs. The wasps get a place to reproduce and the figs get access to highly specific pollinators. I found this awesome video that shows how microscopic wasps crawl into figs. This other video from PBS’s Gross Science takes it from there describing what happens next in reproduction.
New varieties of common figs, like my Brown Turkey, have been cultivated to not need a wasp for pollination. The female trees are asexual, and the seeds produced are not viable — they are empty seeds. You will see lots of them when we finally get around to cooking the figs!
Every Christmas I make my grandmother’s Sicilian fig cookies. The recipe calls for dried Calimyrna figs. Calimyrnas are a Californian cultivar of the Turkish Smyrna fig (Calimyrna = California + Smyrna) that does require a wasp for pollination. They produce “true seeds” — seeds that are viable for reproduction. Fertile seeds are thick and crunchy, and have a nutty flavor preferred by bakers. They are the figs used to make Fig Newtons.
How to Make Fig Preserves
I cooked many not-so-delicious batches of fig preserves on the stove before it occurred to me to try roasting them with herbs as I do my strawberry jam. The results were amazing. Roasting intensified the depth of flavor exponentially. They were so good, I took all my reject batches, mixed them together, and roasted two trays for about an hour. Suddenly, they were all tastier, too.
4-5 pounds fresh figs (12 cups, once stemmed and quartered)*
5 cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
one bunch of thyme sprigs (⅓ ounce) or 3-4 long stems of fresh rosemary
*Today, I saw four varieties of figs for sale at Trader Joe’s!
Remove stems and quarter figs.
Place in a lightly-greased heavy-bottomed pot.
Add sugar and acids and stir. The amount of sugar sounds like a lot, but you need sugar to preserve fruit. Acids help fruit release its naturally occurring pectin. Once mixed, place in refrigerator and allow to macerate for a minimum of two hours or overnight.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 175º. Add thyme or rosemary and simmer on low heat for about twenty minutes. If using thyme, strip leaves before stirring in. If using rosemary, do not strip leaves; leave stems intact and remove before bottling.
Pour hot figs into two rimmed sheet pans and roast for about 4-5 hours.
One way to tell if they have cooked long enough to gel once cooled is to draw a path through the figs and see if the two sides stay separated. If they do, they are ready. You should be able to smell them if they are sufficiently roasted. If you overcook them, they will become thick and gummy when cool. Better to undercook than to overcook.
Pour hot preserves into clean jars, wipe the rims, cover with screw top lids, and turn upside down while they cool. I store them in the fridge, where they should be good for two months.,
I’ll end this story with one last video of my chickens eating figs in the early morning hours.
What are my favorite ways to enjoy fig preserves?
By the spoonful — just out of the oven.
My cousin, Marion, served the fig preserves over a delicious blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses called Rochetta. It was delish. As soon as I got home, I bought a similar cheese called La Tur at Whole Foods.
I often have fig preserves spread over Homemade Ricotta on toast for breakfast, or I’ll make an almond butter and fig sandwich for lunch.
I love brie and fig paninis. Hard to get a photo of the finished product with these crazy-good sandwiches, though.
Please let me know if you make the preserves!
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