I occasionally visit flea markets and antique stores. During such visits I’ve kept an eye out for a wooden box lined with fine metal screening of a particular design. As a child, I was told these boxes would perch on the tops of Oxford roofs with figs in them. In August, the intense summer heat would dry the newly ripened local figs quickly in only a week or two; then the fruits would be wrapped in wax paper or cheesecloth to be stored for winter. While I never participated in this project myself, I always wanted to try. “I’m not sure whatever happened to those screens…” my mother would say every August. They were very old and most likely rotted away was the consensus. I’ve looked in many antique shops but have never seen what was described to me as a “fig drying box.”
Growing up, many of the folks in Oxford also canned figs or made preserves as a seasonal, cultural event; it was as customary as perhaps canning tomatoes, making homemade oyster stew, or having a crab feast. Many fig bushes could be found in Oxford’s long, skinny backyards. Of the 11 houses on our block, I can think of seven large prolific fig bushes that grew. At least four of them are still there today. The fig bush I was most acquainted with grew behind our shed facing east. It benefited from the morning sun, afternoon shade, and the residual heat from its proximity to the shed.
I recall some sad times back in August 1977, not only because Elvis died (mom was a fan), but our fig bush did not produce, in fact it never sprouted green leaves at all that year. Wondering if my memory was accurate, I researched temperatures in January 1977. From January 17 to 20, the nighttime lows were as follows respectively: .1 degrees F, 8 degrees F, 10 degrees F, 21 degrees F. Sustained low temperatures like these would certainly make it difficult for a fig tree to survive. Fig trees grow well in temperate areas, and if planted on the northern edge of this comfort zone, they may need help overwintering by trenching, burlaping or by a temporary structure. I have seen fig trees appear to be dead and the root ball remains alive and within a few years they regain their strength. This fig bush did not. At the time I do not know how old it was, but my suspicion is that it could have been as much as 75 to 100 years old as my great grandmother put up figs and she moved into the house in 1899. The fig variety was “brown turkey,” which can live up to 200 years old. After the crushing loss of her grandmother’s fig bush, a close neighbor and good friend of my mother offered a cutting off of her fig bush to propagate. It was a very vigorous tree that produced many figs. My mother was positively thrilled. It took a few years for the cutting to establish itself and grow, but by the early 1980s she was picking small batches, and with a few more years she was humming along while making preserves by the soup pot full. The tree is still with us, large and healthy at 45 years old.
Did you know August is fig season on the Eastern Shore? Growing up, I thought everyone knew when fig season was because at my house every morning starting August 1, a daily report was given. Mom would begin checking our fig trees daily this time of year. The daily reports sounded something this:
“Figs are still hard, few more weeks.”
“Figs need rain.”
“They are coming on strong, should have five pounds within two days.”
‘It’s time to buy sugar and lemons.”
“Stop what you are doing and help me peel the figs – always peel the figs.”
“Watch out for wasps and rotten ones, they will ruin the whole batch.”
“I can’t leave the kitchen; the figs are on.”
“Always skim the foam off the top, it has the impurities.”
“Have you tasted the figs this year? Phenomenal.” (Overheard her talking on the phone)
“Golden color is just right, drop some on the back of a cold plate.”
“Figs and biscuits for breakfast!”
“Fletcher is eating my figs!” (Mom runs out the door)
Please note this is a very abbreviated version of how the month of August played out. Cousin Fletcher was caught many a morning in August reaching over our fence pulling a springy fig branch down to his level to feel and see if the figs were ripe. Once they had ripened, he would have one fresh fig every morning for breakfast on his daily walk. Although my mother and Cousin Fletcher quipped back and forth about the little fruits – it was an August routine she wouldn’t have missed. Days he didn’t come by were much quieter and, despite their playfully aggressive banter, she always came back in the house smiling and Fletcher would always walk up the street eating a fresh fig.
During fig and biscuit breakfasts, my brother and I would fight over the lemon. One slice went in each jar and if you were lucky there were two. Candied, sweet and tart they were worth fighting for. As you will gather from my story, a fig-centric August was completely normal to me. So, I was puzzled in my youth when I would say “It’s fig season!” with pride and excitement to others outside of Oxford and my audience would be fairly blasé about it. It only took a few indifferent responses before I began to realize that I was the town crier that no one was listening to. What I saw as usual was perhaps unusual to most – but not all. Now that my mother is gone, the daily fig reports have turned into a weekly progress report from a faithful cousin who truly appreciates a jar of fresh fig preserves.
I have been referring to the fig plant as a bush and a tree for this entire column when in reality they are trees. The fig plants I am acquainted with always seemed more bush like and that is what we called them, fig bushes, but technically they are trees. The common fig tree (ficus carica) was not always so “common,” and early cultures revered them. The fig tree originated in the Arabia area … “and were a constant presence in Greek Society, with the first Greek cultivation of figs probably occurring around 900 BC on the mainland and many centuries earlier than that on Crete. It appears that figs were already known and venerated at the high period of Cretan culture around 1500 BC. In Greek Mythology, there was a Titan whose named derived from the word for fig (syke): his name was Sykeus and he was one of the Titans who waged war against Zeus. After the defeat of the Titans, Sykeus took flight and was protected by his mother Gaia (the earth) who transformed him into a fig tree.” (Sutton, 45)
A nutritionally healthy source of calcium, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants, the fig tree would spread across civilizations and eventually continents as it expanded west. It would arrive in England in the 1500s and be planted in Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1769 Spanish missionaries brought the first figs to California. Given that all things English ended up in the Chesapeake region, I would suspect that fig trees were planted on our river shores long before they were cultivated in California.
While Turkey grows more figs than anyone else in the world, figs are also commercially grown in California. By the 1920s, California was producing nearly 60 tons of figs every year. However, that would change. For a variety of reasons, fig farms would fall out of favor until now only a few farmers grow figs commercially in California. But the fig tree is adaptable and still flourishes in California, its seeds spread by animals. Its foliage now found growing wild has become the prize of very serious fig hunters. In a recent Smithsonian article, the author Jacob Roberts tells the story of a booming market that has specimen hunters in the west tracking down rare varieties of the ancient fruit. “Despite the infighting, the wild fig hunters know they have the potential to preserve one of humankind’s most storied food species at a crucial time, when climate change threatens the survival of so many plants, animals and insects.”
There are four fig bushes in my life, and I love and care for every one of them. They are the source of many a family story and a social upbringing that clings to my constitution. The fig is culturally enigmatic in that its fruit is both opulent and humble. Once enjoyed by kings and worshipped by ancient Greeks, the fig has cast its divinity across the continents, amongst all peoples rich or poor, and are now enjoyed by all who are entertained by them.
The figs travels, availability and transformations into new and rare cultivars is a lesson in inclusion and adaptation. The figs are ripening as you read this column, and I must ask, “Is there a fig bush in your life?” I hope there is, and if not, then later this fall might you consider planting one?
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Fig Cake with Candied Lemons
1 cup sugar
2 cups gluten free flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup sunflower oil
1 cup almond milk
1 cup fig preserves
2 tsp lemon extract
1 cup coarse chopped walnuts
Combine dry ingredients, and oil and beat, then add eggs and beat one minute. Add almond milk and lemon extract. Stir in preserves and walnuts. Bake in greased Bundt pan at 325 degrees for about an hour. Cool, then slice and serve with candied lemons.
*This recipe can also be made with wheat flour and cow’s milk.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 TBS lemon juice
2-3 whole lemons cut thin
In large fry pan combine sugar, water, and lemon juice and cook on low heat, until combined. Increase to medium heat and bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and add the sliced lemons. Cook for 15 minutes turning a few times. Place on wire rack to thoroughly dry. May store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Resources and Readings
How to start a fig tree from a cutting.
Sutton, David C. Figs – A Global History. London, Reaktion Books, Ltd. 2014
Chambers, Roger. The Fig: Its History, Culture and Curing. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Self Reliant Books, 2018
Roberts, Jacobs. “Gather the Wild Figs.” Smithsonian Magazine, Vol. 52, no. 10, March 2022
Cathy’s fig cake with candied lemons was devoured. The family consensus? It was “tasty.”