The Fourth of July means red, white and blue to celebrate America’s birthday, but with our mild spring and ample rainfall this year it also heralds fig season in south Louisiana. If your experience with figs is limited to Fig Newtons or once upon a time you had fig preserves on toast, I am pausing for a moment of silence for your taste buds. A fresh fig picked and eaten just off the tree is something else altogether.
Fresh figs do not keep for any significant length of time and you’ll be hard-pressed to ever find them in the grocery store. So, if you’d like to try this summer delicacy, make friends with someone that has a fig tree or grow your own (surprisingly easy for anyone in hardiness zones with winters less than 800 chill hours).The most common varieties grown in the south are the Celeste and the Brown Turkey fig (Texas ever-bearing) which produce small brown figs. The LSU AgCenter has introduced several new varieties in recent years including the LSU Purple and LSU Gold, colored according to their namesakes. I have two LSU Gold trees and as far as taste goes, I cannot sing their praises enough. They have a delicate and very sweet taste. It’s what I imagine heaven must taste like. However, in my n = 2 experience these trees get huge in a hurry. It’s great if you’re impatient for your first fig crop, but beware if your backyard space is limiting. Typically it is not necessary to prune fig trees as with other fruit trees, but you may want to rein in an LSU Gold tree in a small backyard. This is less of a problem with Celeste or Brown Turkey figs.
If you are new to fig tree culture, you may ask yourself, “I wonder what fig tree blossoms look and smell like? I am sure they must be equally heavenly.” Yes, that’s because the ‘fruit’ you are eating are actually a special type of inflorescence structure (read flower) with the botanical name syconium or synconium. It is basically a modified fleshy stem that encloses numerous ovaries (floral tissue). The inner pulp is the flowers.
You should also beware that fig stems (branches and where the fruit are picked) produce a milky latex material to which some people can be sensitive. It contains the enzyme ficin that will degrade proteins. In fact, this enzyme is used commercially to differentiate blood groups for transfusion purposes. Human blood types go beyond the standard A, B, O or even Rh designations. There are numerous antigens on the surfaces of our blood cells that can affect transfusion success. The Kidd antigen type on your red blood cells and kidneys is difficult to determine in its normal state, but treatment with the enzyme ficin aids in differentiation because the partially degraded product will be more reactive while other variants are resistant to ficin degradation.
Whether or not you care about the finer points of their plant biology or use in biochemical assays, once you have your own fig tree(s), you will inevitably become overwhelmed with the glut of fruit produced in the month of July. You can pawn them off to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Drying them in halves is another great option and intensifies their flavor for use in cooking later. Hardcore enthusiasts will can them as preserves. Now, I was never taught the secret of my grandmother’s fig preserves, but I have read the protocol. Even with a PhD in biochemistry and finely honed protein purification skills at the lab bench, the multi-step process of successfully preparing fig preserves gives me pause. So, who wants figs this Fourth?
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