British Columbia

False fruit! Six things you didn't know about figs

David Tracey, author of the Vancouver Tree Book, joined CBC's North by Northwest to discuss all things fig.

Fig leaves can be used to make the perfect loin cloth, and other fun facts from expert David Tracey

David Tracey joined Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest to discuss all things fig. (David Tracey)

If you enjoy natural sweets, the odds are you've heard of the fig, the dry fig, the fig newton, and the fig roll.

Figs are everywhere: they're one of humanity's favourite fruit-tree delights, and they're even enjoyed by hundreds of animals, too. But did you know their cultivation predates modern history? Or that their leaves can be used to make the perfect loin cloth?

"The more you look into figs, how they get pollinated, the sex life of figs — oh, it's just incredible stuff," said David Tracey, author of the Vancouver Tree Book and a noted fig enthusiast.

Tracey caught up with Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North By Northwest to discuss all things fig. The discussion led to some startling revelations, and the first one might turn your fig-filled world upside-down.

Figs aren't quite what they seem

The common fig is a synconium, or a collection of small flowers.

"When you're eating a fig, you're not really eating a fruit," said Tracey. "You're eating a bunch of tiny flowers inside that shell."

That's right, the fig is what's known as a false fruit, and has likely been tricking you for many years.

Figs, which are considered false fruit, have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years, Tracey says. (Canadian Press)

Figs have been loved for a long time

Figs have been around for a while.

"In human history — at least from 5,000 B.C. — people [have been] cultivating figs," Tracey said. "Some people say it goes 5,000 years beyond that, even."

He said the Ancient Greeks were "mad about figs," adding that they used to feed them to Olympic athletes as a training food, and would give them as prizes to victors.

Pliny the Elder, a naval commander of the early Roman Empire, was said to have also harvested edible figs.

According to Tracey, some historians believe the prophet Muhammed said, "If I could wish a fruit brought to paradise, it would certainly be the fig."

They're a related to the Great Banyan tree

Figs are in the plant genus ficus, and there's over 700 types of ficus trees, including the banyan tree.

The Great Banyan tree is a ficus colony of genetically identical banyan trees connected by aerial roots in Kolkata, India. It's over 200 years old, appears to span what looks like an entire forest, and also draws visitors each year from all over the world.

According to Tracey, the Great Banyan tree could shelter 20,000 people from the rain.

Figs want to be in Sicily

Figs originate around Western Asia and spread through the Mediterranean, so they grow best in climates similar to those areas.

"They want to be in Sicily," said Tracey. adding that if you're looking to plant a fig in your backyard, try to find the most "Sicilian" space to plant it. This could be in a south-facing area, or up against a wall that gets a lot of sunlight.

They'll still grow even if they don't get full sun, he says, but you're more likely to get the crop to ripen if you get the full sun.

On fruitful years, fig trees can offer two crops, which is why Tracey warns people not to cut off all of the previous year's growth. (The Associated Press)

Fig trees yield two crops

On fruitful years, fig trees can offer two crops.

The first is called the breba crop, which grows on the previous year's wood around mid-July.

If you get a really hot summer, fig trees will yield a second crop, called the main crop, which grows on the current year's wood.

"Don't cut off all of last year's growth," Tracey said. "You'll cut off the breba crop every year. You'll get lush growth every year, and wonder, 'Why don't I ever get any figs?'

Their leaves make for great clothes... kind of

"Pro tip on the leaves: if you ever get banished from the Garden of Eden because you did something really bad, you can sew [the leaves] together into a loin cloth," said Tracey.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, listen to the audio labelled: 'The Tree Guy' David Tracey fills us in on some fig secrets