Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I hope that you will indulge my choice of ‘weed’ this week, for the Common Fig is no more a ‘weed’ than I am a nuclear scientist. Nonetheless, I pass this particular tree every week as I head into Muswell Hill for my breakfast, and I wanted to give it its moment in the sun. For one thing, I noticed that it actually has figs this year. For another, the leaves always remind me of classical statues that have been ‘censored’ to suit Victorian values. For yet another, I love ripe figs, although once you know how they’re pollinated you might want to avoid them if you’re averse to animal protein. So, welcome to the Wonderful World of Figs (and if that’s not a name for a plant-related theme-park I don’t know what is).
First things first. The fig is actually a member of the mulberry family, and is native to the Middle East and western Asia. It is a plant whose history is deeply interwoven with that of human beings: in the Christian tradition, Adam and Eve covered their genitalia with fig leaves after eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The Buddha became enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, which is a kind of fig. The fig is mentioned in the Quran, and the phrase from the Bible ‘each man under his own vine and fig tree’ was used to describe both the Jewish homeland and the land awaiting the American settlers. In short, the idea of figs as a symbol of plenty and of safety seems to be universal across the plant’s range.
The fig tree is normally a plant of dry, hot climates and rocky areas, but has a deep, penetrating root system, and in the wild is often found beside streams and oases. The tree can grow to a huge size and its leaves form dense, delicious shade. A fig tree can live for 150 – 200 years, but there are some stories of trees living for over a thousand years. One rather fetching tree lives in the grounds of Clerkenwell Primary School on Amwell Street in Islington – it is at least 200 years old, and these days is propped up with great green metal supports.
Although the Muswell Hill fig is producing fruit, the chance of them ripening in the UK is practically zero (at least until climate change bakes us all a little harder). I do love a ripe, juicy fig. However, the fruit of each species of fig is pollinated by a tiny fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes in many cases). The coevolution of fig and wasp is one of those examples of symbiosis that boggles the mind. First, a pregnant female wasp enters through a tiny hole at the base of the fruit. She pollinates some of the flowers that are inside the fruit, lays her eggs, and dies. Then the male wasps emerge first and leave their semen so that this inseminates the females who then emerge into the body of the fruit, but can get no further. Finally, the male wasps return and gnaw holes in the outside of the fruit so that the females can escape. In short, that tasty fig is both a love nest for lustful insects and a grave for the original female.
There are no fig wasps in the UK, because it’s too cold. On the other hand, the fruit doesn’t ripen. Life can be problematic sometimes.
Figs are also eaten by a very wide range of birds, mammals and insects throughout their range – in a New Scientist article it was estimated that over 1270 species will eat the fruit, which makes it important for biodiversity. Experiments with planting it in degraded forest areas in Thailand have shown that the animals that it attracts will also help with habitat restoration – birds and bats in particular will be ‘carrying’ other seeds that they will ‘plant’ in their droppings.However, it’s the leaves of the fig tree that are so emblematic. They seem tailor-made to cover any ‘naughty’ areas, and I suspect that very attractive green underwear could be knocked together by anyone with a fig tree, a needle and cotton and a few hours to spare. I note that there is even an underwear company called ‘Figleaves‘, although they have a strange reluctance to feature plant-based undergarments. However, what delights me is the way that figleaves appear and disappear through history. The Italian painter Masaccio painted a fresco of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden during the 15th Century. Adam covers his face, while Eve covers her privates with a hand (thus showing who is led by which body part). In 1680, some vandal painted on some ‘fig leaves’ (which are not even botanically accurate, I’d like to pedantically point out). However, when the work was restored in 1980 the fig leaves were removed.
Here is a rather splendid depiction of Adam and Eve looking shifty in the Escorial Palace, Madrid. The fig leaves look a little as if they’ve been cut out of crepe paper, and their thighs indicate a little too much time riding uphill on a bicycle, but still.
In the sculpture of the classical world, male genitalia were exposed for all the world to see (though women were generally more coy, with much drapery and the occasional pot plant). However, once Christianity arrived statues were often made more modest, especially during the reign of the ‘chaste’ popes – these fig leaves were added later, and were often made so that they could be removed.
By Medieval times, only the damned were shown nude. However, things reached a pretty pass during the Victorian era, when male nudity in particular was frowned upon, and Queen Victoria herself was said to have found the sight of a man with no clothes on distressing. What to do, then, with the blooming great plaster cast of Michaelangelo’s David that was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London? The curators came up with the idea of a plaster fig leaf which could be hung from the cast on a very unanatomical pair of hooks, in the event of the monarch or some other female dignatory popping by for a dose of classical culture. In the event, it was never used, but you can still see it at the back of a case in the Cast Gallery should you ever visit.
I cannot leave the subject of fig leaves without mentioning the first ‘muscleman’, Eugen Sandow, (1865-1925). He was not very ‘muscley’ by today’s standards (and all the better for it in my opinion) and he was also very influenced by the classical statues that he saw as a boy – he recorded their proportions and worked hard to copy their musculature. Some of his displays were based on the poses of these works of art, and I fear that, gorgeous as he was, it is difficult for a modern person to look at ‘The Dying Gaul’ without a) thinking that it looks most uncomfortable b) noticing the carefully positioned leaf and wondering if it was attached with Bluetack and c) (pedant alert) becoming indignant that this is not, in fact, a fig leaf but some kind of inferior foliage.
Now, when it comes to fig poems, there are several to choose from. There is ‘First Fig’ from Edna St Vincent Millay. I knew the poem, but didn’t know the title, and I am still a little thoughtful. All explanations and theories are welcome, as always.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!
And then there is D.H.Lawrence, havering on about what women should be like as usual. I loved Lawrence when I was a teenager, but have rather outgrown him, I fear. For anyone who wants to have a look, his poem Figs is here. I love the descriptions of the fruit, but the rest of it seems to me to be the maunderings of a deeply unhappy man.
As an antidote, here is a poem about the fig wasp, and about much else besides, by MTC Cronin, an Australian poet that I didn’t know, but will seek out in future. I like this one a lot. What do you think?
And finally, I really like this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, child of an American mother and a Palestinian father. It seems fitting to end with a work that talks about what a tree can mean to someone far from home, and also with a hopeful poem. Maybe we will all find home in the end.
Photo One (The Amwell Fig) – From http://www.treetree.co.uk/fig.html
Photo Two (fig tart) by By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Black Genoa Fig Tart, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29767335
Photo Five (chimps) by By Alain Houle (Harvard University) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six (Eugen Sandow) by By G.dallorto – File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) – Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894 .jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23255977