Facts & Folkore:
Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, the fig has been cultivated since ancient times and is now widely grown throughout the world, both for its fruit and as an ornamental plant.
The edible fig was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. Nine subfossil figs date back to about 9400–9200 BC and were found in the early Neolithic village Gilgal I (in the Jordan Valley, north of Jericho). This precedes the domestication of wheat, barley, and legumes, and may be the first known instance of agriculture!
Because of this perhaps, fig trees feature in origin stories from across the world. The leaves of one fig tree clothed Adam and Eve. Another fig tree’s roots saved the twin babies Romulus and Remus from drowning in the River Tiber.
In Australia, aboriginal stories warn of an altogether more fearsome strangler fig-dweller, the yara-ma-yha-who. This manlike creature has bulging eyes and a gaping, toothless maw. When hungry, it will leap out of its fig tree onto an unsuspecting traveller with fingers and toes ending in flattened discs, through which it sucks the blood of its victims!
In some happier stories, fig trees protect people from malevolent creatures. In Greek mythology, the branches of one fig tree saved Odysseus from being sucked into the deadly whirlpool created by the maw of a hungry sea monster Charybdis!
As a food, figs were a common and popular food for the Romans. The fruits were used, amongst other things, to fatten geese for the production of a precursor of foie gras. Rome's first emperor, Augustus, was reputed to have been poisoned with figs from his garden smeared with poison by his wife Livia. For this reason (or perhaps because of her horticultural expertise) a variety of fig known as the Liviana was subsequently cultivated in Roman gardens.
In 1769, Spanish missionaries led by Junipero Serra brought the first figs to California. The Mission variety, which they cultivated, is still popular.
In the Northern Hemisphere, fresh figs are now in season from August through to early October and are eaten fresh or dried, processed into jam, rolls, biscuits and enjoyed in many other types of desserts.
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