Toxicology Answer: The Fig Tree

My favorite part of the fig plant (Ficus carica L.) is the fruit, of course. These sweet, refreshing waterdrop-shaped packages of goodness are exactly what I need some days to keep going. So much so, that in every home I’ve owned, I’ve planted a fig tree; enjoying the fruit of my labors while acknowledging the link this plant has with humans and culture over time.

The fig (Ficus carica) is part of the mulberry family. It was among the first plants deliberately bred as a food source more than 11,000 years ago—predating cultivated grains by a thousand years.1

The fig features prominently in art, history, and theology, tightly wrapped within human experience. It is used symbolically to represent various human attributes including abundance, prosperity, fertility, wisdom, and strength. Being native and abundant in the Middle East, Asia, and the Mediterranean, it figures prominently in historical writings—Emperor Tiberius describes supporting a thriving fig trade; Theophrastus, Pliny, and Cato often discussed them; and they were mentioned in the Old Testament and the Koran, and described frequently in ancient Greek. In Homer’s Odyssey, Tantalus reached out for figs in his agony; Venus and also Adam and Eve covered up with fig leaves; the goddess Isis is described teaching humans how to eat figs; and more recently D. H. Lawrence, in “Figs,” described how to eat one in Proper society.

The fig tree is a deciduous, multi-trunk tree with smooth, gray, finely coarse bark that grows 15 to 30 feet high with a low canopy of green. There are many varieties of the fig tree, but most common are Black Mission and Brown Turkey. The trees are native to Southeast Asia and Eastern Mediterranean areas, where they grow in rocky and shrubby areas. In the U.S. it is grown commercially in the West and South—California, Texas, Oregon, and Washington.

FIGURE 1: The fuzzy surfaces (the indumentum) are coarse on the upper surface and soft on the underside. (Click to enlarge.)

The leaves are easily identified: toothed and deeply lobed with symmetrical sinuses. The fuzzy surfaces (the indumentum) are coarse on the upper surface and soft on the underside (see Figure 1).

They also have a “fig plant” smell that you either love or hate.

Once mature (four to five years) the tree produces one or two fig crops of brown-purplish fruit a year—often only one of them is deliciously edible.