Food & Drink Family tree

In a twig, memory and good figs are passed down through the generations

"Today, the fig tree you planted in my yard, born of a single magical stick, child of your own enormous tree, towers over our clothesline. White shirts billow forth beneath it. I pinch my eyes shut, sailing to the old country of smoky stones, figs and birds."
- Naomi Shihab Nye

It's easy to get sentimental about the fig. There's a bushy fig tree at the bottom of my mother-in-law's gravel driveway in California that I miss terribly in fig season. Not only the sweet flavor of the fruit, but also the sour smell of it smashed on hot pavement and the caw-caw of the crows waiting anxiously above to peck down a few more.

Texas fig people have stories, too, many involving a stick and then a tree, the wide leaves and pear-shaped fruit of which have a powerful recall, maybe not of smoky stones, but itchy summer hands and canned preserves.

Some folks have an allergy to fig latex, the milky white liquid produced by the fig tree, which can make harvesting the fruit an itchy endeavor. Long sleeves and rubber gloves will protect arms and hands from rash. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

When I e-mailed Chris Schultz, a local architect, about his fig tree, a tall specimen with wide-reaching limbs and leaves like elephant ears, he answered immediately, dismissing the old tree as nothing special, yet speaking fondly of it. "I was battling an errant fig limb that thought it could take over some pedestrian space. That thing really needs to be given a hair cut!" he wrote. "But there, under a big leaf, was a plump green fig with the first blush of ripeness. Plucked, peeled, and popped into my mouth. I decided to give the limb a reprieve."

The tree in his yard has a history: It was planted in the '30s by Belle Worthem, a circus and carnival operator, whose grandchildren remember sitting beneath the tree as youngsters, eating figs 'til their mouths puckered. But Schultz' most vivid memories are of his parent's tree, a Celeste that produces small brown figs, a rich fruit suitable for desserts and preserves, much to Schultz' childhood chagrin. "I remember picking figs on Fourth of July weekend," he says. "It was hot and you'd have to wear a long-sleeve T-shirt; picking the figs is very itchy. Once you got into it, you'd start hunting for the really big fig, but I've always had a love-hate relationship with preserves."

In the '60s, Schultz' parents married and built a house in San Antonio. His mother, Ida Marie, took a cutting, a single twig, from the fig tree she had grown up with on her parent's South Texas farm, in Arneckville, and planted it in the yard of her Harmony Hills home.

According to Texas A & M horticulturists, the easiest way to propagate figs is to take a 6-to-8-inch stem cutting. Plant the twig, with the milky cut end up, in a well-drained and weed-free pot of soil to callus (heal), from mid-January to mid-April. After callusing, re-plant the cutting right side up, with only an inch of the twig showing above the soil. In a year, it will grow about 2 feet and establish roots strong enough to be planted in the yard. Young fig trees should be transplanted in the spring, just before foliage appears.

Ida Marie's Fig Preserves

8 c peeled figs (heaping)
6 c sugar
Mustang grape juice

Chop the figs in quarters, cover in sugar, and let sit overnight or at least one hour. In a pot, combine the figs and sugar with fresh mustang grape juice, just enough to make it look pretty. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, stirring frequently. When the preserves are done, the figs should look shiny and translucent and the syrup should be stringy in texture. Pour the hot preserves into sterile canning jars, leaving a little space at the top and carefully wiping away any seeds that will block the seal. Cover with a warm lid and screw band.

Stored in a cool, dry place, fig preserves will last up to a year. Spread finished preserves on toasted English muffins, between the layers of cake, on grilled cheese sandwiches, or drop a dollop on ice cream.

Ida Marie says they harvested fruit about two years after planting, and the tree has produced "sweet little figs" every year since. "Our fig crop has always been good," she says. "The `Celeste` doesn't have an eye, the open hole, so we don't have fruit beetles crawling in to spoil the fruit. But, of course, there are the birds." How does she fend off the birds? "We don't. We've always had enough figs for family and friends."

On Lullwood, in Monte Vista, Max and Bertha Sheff were never so generous with the grackles. "Once the birds peck them they get bitter," says Lynn Lipsitz, their granddaughter. "My grandmother made scarecrows and draped the tree in cheesecloth to keep the birds out."

Bertha Sheff planted the fig tree in the late '20s, when she and Max purchased the house. She had carried the stock with her from Kiev, Russia (Ukraine), as a 15-year-old immigrant. "Grandmother took that tree with her everywhere," says Lipsitz, who now lives in Houston. "Until she moved away from home, my mother looked forward to those figs every year. Grandmother would serve them for breakfast, raw with cream and sugar, or boil them down for preserves. I've known that tree my whole life."

Although they weren't avid gardeners, Lipsitz says her grandfather was "proud of the horticulture in the yard, the fruit trees, and loved to see the garden in bloom."

Horticulturally speaking, the fig is unusual. Unlike most trees, in which the edible fruit is mature ovary tissue, the fig tree's fruit is actually stem tissue, an inverted flower, with both the male and female parts enclosed. The gritty bits that give figs their resin-like flavor are not seeds but unfertilized ovaries that failed to develop.

In order to produce fruit, fig trees require full sunlight, especially morning sun, which dries the dew from the leaves and keeps the tree from developing rot or disease. They will flourish in any soil but don't tolerate poorly drained sites. Yet they need frequent watering during the summer: Wilty afternoon leaves are a good indication a fig tree is thirsty, and heavy mulching with straw (available at the local feed store) or grass clippings will help protect figs during the dry season.

Bertha and Max have both passed away, but their fig tree still stands on Lullwood. Lipsitz and her mother have taken cuttings with them to Houston and Waco, respectively, and every year they pick hundreds of honey-sweet brown figs. "The first figs are the largest, some are the size of lemons. These we watch so carefully. For the first three or four weeks, we hang foil pans from strings to scare the birds away," she says.

Figs should be left to ripen on the tree, but must be picked as soon as they do, otherwise they may rot or suffer attack by fruit beetles. "They will turn brown and very soft to the touch when they are ripe," says Ida Marie Schultz, "and should fall off the branch into your hands." If they break off or the sap is white, they are not ripe.

Ida Marie still makes figs preserves each year, but she gives them away mostly, because everyone in the family is on a diet. "Chris won't take the preserves. He's not eating as much toast and bread, and neither are we." I suggest spooning it over ice cream. "Oh, that would be wonderful," she says, with a hint of regret, "but I suppose I really shouldn't eat that either."

By Susan Pagani

Scroll to read more Flavor articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.