Figs: "Vulgar" Fruit or "Wholesome" Delicacy?

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

When fresh figs are harvested and distributed to Monticello employees from the restored fruit garden -- and some years we might pick thousands of ripe Marseilles, Brown Turkey, and Angelique figs -- few crops elicit such a strong and varied response: either wild enthusiasm or frank contempt. Many first-time fig tasters, overwhelmed by the cloying, milky sweetness of the fresh fruit, say they prefer the sugary blandness of a Fig Newton. For others, the fig represents a kind of Holy Grail of fruit. The romance of the fig -- the classical associations of its discovery by Dionysius and the thunderbolts of Jupiter; its Biblical tradition as the tree of knowledge and as a symbol of the fallen innocence and the sensual pleasures of Paradise -- further enhances its status as an exotic treasure, a culinary trophy. Finally, because of their sensitivity to cold, figs are a precious crop north of Zone 8, and for northern gardeners their harvest is a testament to a gardener's skill and diligence.

Similarly, the fig was a controversial item in the early nineteenth century. In 1835 Margaret Bayard Smith, a friend of Jefferson and a central figure in the whirlwind world of Washington society, reported on a conversation with Henry Orr, "the most experienced and fashionable waiter in the city," about the menu for a sophisticated dinner party. When she suggested a dessert that included figs, Orr responded, "Oh no, ma'am, they are quite vulgar." Henry Philips, whose Pomarium Brittanicum was reprinted in the Baltimore periodical, American Farmer, in 1822, said that in Sussex "I have known it not only neglected by the middle and lower classes, but even mentioned with derision in their disputes." In Great Britian, to give someone "the fig" consisted "in thrusting the thumb between two of the closed fingers or into the mouth" and was considered a contemptious gesture.

The tutor for an aristocratic Virginia family, Philip Fithian, who also could not "endure them", gathered figs in 1774 from the garden at Nomini Hall with the more appreciative "Ladies." Landon Carter was surprised at how "prodigious" summer rains had rendered Colonel Tayloe's usually "remarkably fine and luscious" figs "tasteless" in 1775 at Mount Airy on the Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Nearby at Stratford Hall, the home of the Lee family, Lucinda Orr reported how in 1782 she and her cousin "walked in the Garden, sat about two hours under a butiful shade tree, and eat as many figs as we could." William Cobbett, author of The American Gardener (1821), found figs "a mawkish thing at best."

The "American Farmer," editor of the American edition of William Forsyth's popular Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit Trees (1803), was a typical fig proponent. He said this "fine wholesome fruit, though not an American favourite, is highly esteemed in countries where it ripens, and is everywhere deemed wholesome and delicious when eaten ripe from the tree. The editor knows that at first his neighbors in America who disliked their flavor, were soon fond of them, and they are in truth a wholesome and valuable fruit, as in his Maryland garden was often attested from experience. "The American Farmer's" defense of the fig and his repeated use of the word "wholesome," reminds one of a modern public relations campaign masking some suspisciously unsavory product.

Thomas Jefferson achieved some success with this tender species (Ficus carica), often recording harvesting dates and regularly passing on his favorite variety, Marseilles, to friends and neighbors. The fig terrace, in the south-facing submural beds below the Monticello kitchen garden, was a popular site for Jefferson-escorted tours of the landscape. It also created a warm microclimate that, when compounded with the unusual hardiness of the Marseilles, gave the Monticello figs a reputation for unusual fruitfullness. At least one contemporary considered Jefferson a pioneer grower of the fig. A friend and neighbor, John Hartwell Cocke, recalled that figs were "first successfully cultivated by Mr. Jefferson at Monticello after his return from his mission to France." Confusion about an earlier American fig-growing tradition was also expressed by A. J. Downing, author of the landmark work, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America (1845), who erroneously stated it wasn't until 1790 that William Hamilton, the renowned Philadelphia plantsman, first introduced figs into this country. Jefferson himself was clearly more factually correct, although at the other extreme, when in 1787 he wrote South Carolina's William Drayton, "The fig and mulberry are so well known in America that nothing be said of them."

Numerous accounts document the introduction of the fig into Spanish America and Florida in the sixteenth century. The longevity of individual plants also provided clues to its prevalence in the deep South. Plant explorer John Bartram described in 1766 how the English had ransacked the fruit gardens of St. Augustine, Florida, which had been occupied until then by the Spanish; however, the fig trees were left unmolested: "As for the Figs, the English are not very fond of them." The fig was first reported in Virginia in 1621, when John Smith said figs "prospered exceedingly" after being brought to Jamestown from Bermuda. According to Smith, Jane Pierce, wife of Captain William Pierce, planted a three or four-acre fruit and vegetable garden and harvested one hundred bushels of "excellent figges" in the summer of 1629. Thomas Glover in 1676 observed that Virginia figs were equal to those in Spain, "but there are few planted yet." Robert Beverley, thirty years later, was more specific when he said "there are not ten People in the Country, that have any of them in their Gardens." Other accounts also suggest that the species may have been relatively unfamiliar to gardeners around 1800. Bernard McMahon in his American Gardener's Calendar, for example, justified his lengthy discussion of fig culture by noting the species was "not as well known in the United-States, as other kinds of fruit-trees."

The fig is uniquely long-lived among all temperate climate fruits. Although consistently killed to the ground during cold winters, the plants themselves will survive for centuries, thereby providing a graphic confirmation of the existence of a historic garden. The unrelenting persistence of figs around the histotic sites associated with the Virginia gentry suggests they may have been more common than the written word implies. A visitor in 1882 to George Washington's birthplace at Wakefield, where the house had long been in ruins, found "a dense thicket of shrubby fig trees covering a circular space of nearly fifty feet in diameter." In the 1920s members of Richmond's James River Garden Club compiled descriptions of well-known gardens associated with famous Virginians in Historic Gardens of Virginia. Among other sites, they described "great hedges" of figs at Brandon, an historic property along the James River below Richmond, "some upshoots of the original fig" at Mount Vernon, and old plantings at Landon Carter's Sabine Hall and Lady Jean Skipwith's Prestwould. In 1957 centuries-old fig bushes were still thriving at Mount Vernon, Stratford Hall, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and other historic sites in Virginia. Whether you like fresh figs or not, few garden plants can rival the fig for its central role in the tradition of southern gardens.

Peter J. Hatch, Director
Monticello Gardens and Grounds
January 1996

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

Tag this

None
Login or register to tag items

Add comment

Login or register to post comments