Of the approximately 700 species of the genus

Ficus, family Moraceae, only the fig tree (Ficus
carica) is deciduous and grows as native to the
Mediterranean. Like all Ficus, it contains a
white latex that flows easily from cuts in the
leaves or from the unripe fruit. In Spain, nu-
merous species of the same genus are grown
as houseplants and as outdoor ornamentals in
warm areas.

The fig tree is a distinctive tree with smooth
gray bark. In winter, we can recognize it by its
tortuous branches with thick endings. Large
lobed leaves with small deciduous stipules
sprout in the springtime, while one or two inflo-
rescences appear in the axil of each leaf.

Figure 1. Some fig varieties from the San Vicente Mountains (Toledo): 1.-
Cordobés. 2.- Cuellodama. 3.- Morenillo. 4.- Negro. 5.- Pataburro or oñi-
gal. 6.- Verdejo.

The wild fig tree, which grows on the river
banks or in ravines, is quite common in south-
ern and eastern sections of the Iberian Penin-
sula. In addition, there are about 800 varieties
which have been cultivated since ancient times,
approximately 40 of which are cultivated in
Spain (Tejerina, 2010).

Just the names of hundreds of varieties of figs
in different languages, along with their numer-
ous synonyms, make up a rich lexical heritage.

Wild fig and some old varieties of cultivated figs
have a very special pollination system. A small
wasp, Blastophaga grossorum, has co-evolved
with the fig tree, taking care of pollination.
Figs have female, male and sterile flowers. The
female flowers of each fig mature earlier than
male flowers. In the sterile flowers, the female
wasp lays her eggs (penetrating through the fig
basal hole). The wingless male wasps are born
inside the figs, fertilize the females and then
die. Gravid winged females depart from the figs
loaded with pollen (at this time the male flow-
ers inside the fig are mature), seeking new figs
in which to deposit their eggs and repeat the
process (Blanco, 1996).

Wild figs are not edible, since they have a
corky texture and are not sweet. Most culti-
vated figs contain only female flowers, so they
are sterile.

Daughter of the Mediterranean

This special fruit develops from tiny flowers
which are enclosed in a receptacle that be-
comes fleshy, sweet and juicy when ripe
(except in wild figs). These complex fruits,
whose scientific name is syconia , appear in the
leaf axils of new branches. In certain varieties
of figs, called brevales, some dormant buds
(especially at the end of the branch), will de-
velop the following spring with the movement
of the sap. These early fruits are called brebas
and appear on the branch that was formed the
previous year (before the growth scar of the
new year). These brebas mature earlier than
figs, which are found on newly grown shoots
from the year in course.
According to Roman tradition, Romulus and Re-
mus were found at the foot of a special fig tree,
called the Ruminal Fig, which was planted in
the Roman Forum from time immemorial and
replaced over and over again when it died. For
the Romans, figs were a prized fruit which they
cooked with liver.

On the Iberian Peninsula, remains of figs have
been found in 15 archaeological sites, while the
wood has only been found in 6, thus suggesting a
more important use of the fruits than of the
wood, similar to today’s use. (Mata et al, 2010).
Classic authors such as Strabo, Polybius, Cato,
Columella and Pliny wrote about the fig tree, its
agronomy and its varieties (Mata et al, 2010).
In the Islamic world, the fig was one of the plants
mentioned in the Koran, thus making it a muba-
rak (blessed) tree conferring baraka (blessings)
when planted.
In his work titled Umdat, Abuljayr, an XI century
agronomist from Seville, described over 40 differ-
ent varieties of figs known in his time in Al Anda-
lus (the Muslim Middle Age Kingdom of Spain).
Some, such as the Qurtubi (from Cordoba), the
nigrār and the burḏāl (verdal) are still known to-
day (Bustamante et al, 2007).
In Spanish literature the fig tree planted in the
garden of the poet Miguel Hernandez in Orihuela
(Alicante) is of renown fame.


Figure 2.- Figs and brebas.
Cultivated fig trees are sterile and can therefore only
be propagated by woody cuttings (often T-shaped) or
with root regrowth. Cuttings have to be almost com-
pletely buried, while stems with roots are easier to
plant. In both cases, the percentage of success is very
Cultivated fig trees are usually grafted onto a wild
tree. Branches from different varieties of figs may
be grafted onto the same tree, as we have seen in
the Sierra de San Vicente.
Heavy frosts damage the aerial part of fig trees,
which then have to be cut back in order to resprout.
In La Mancha (Spain) the fig tree is often planted in
protected gardens where it is better able to resist
winter frosts.
Traditional uses
This fruit is prominent in human consumption and also
for some farm animals, especially pigs.
Figure 3.- Outlines of fig varieties in the Sierra de San Vicente
In order to store figs for longer periods of time,
one strategy has been to diversify the varieties
of fig trees. We have studied this case in the
Sierra de San Vicente (Toledo), where people
have planted several varieties of figs, early and
late. Or the same variety is planted in higher
or lower areas, thus lengthening the harvesting

In the countryside of Southern Spain, figs are
dried in order to provide nutrients for many
months. To do this, people spread the figs out
on a large cane tray (cañizo) and leave them to
dry in the sun during the day. At night the figs
are stored to protect them from dew. Once
dried, they are blanched in water with anise
and then saved with flour. In the XI century,
Abulhayr already mentioned this custom of dry-
ing figs during grape harvest time (Bustamante
et al, 2007).
These dried figs are used to make a local deli-
cacy, called a "wedding", which is prepared by
cutting a fig down the middle with a pocket
knife and stuffing it with nuts or peanuts. Simi-
larly, the famous Spanish fig cake (pan de
higo). is made with dried figs and nuts.

Figure 4.- Fig tree orchard in Lietor (Albacete).
Brebas are very difficult to dry (Blanco, 1996).
In the Segura Mountains (Albacete), figs pre-
served in a syrup made with honey or boiled
grape juice (arrope) are quite popular. Often
prepared in a double boiler with anise, the
syrup can be stored for years.

Recipe: figs in syrup (Lupi Córcoles,
Lietor, Albacete).
A sweet way to preserve and eat figs in syrup :
 3 kg. of ripe figs, soft but not mushy. The
stem must be intact.
 1 kg. of sugar.
 A glass of water.
 2 tablespoons of anise seeds.
Boil all ingredients in a pan for two hours.
If refrigerated, this syrup will last a couple of
months, although it can be kept for years if cooked
in a double boiler for 20 minutes.

Figure 5: “Wedding” made of fig and nut (up) and syrup figs
Fermented figs can be distilled to make spirits.
Figs as food
Dried figs contain up to 65% sugar, along with
vitamins A, B and C, potassium salts, iron, cal-
cium, manganese and bromine (Blanco, 1996,
Tejerina, 2010). Dried figs are very energetic
and have been used to fatten pigs in times of
Medicinal uses
Dried figs usually form part of medicinal cough
syrups in Mediterranean folk medicine. These
remedies are based on preparing figs with vari-
ous medicinal plants such as oregano or thyme
and sweetening them with sugar or honey.
They are also mildly laxative (Blanco, 1996, Te-
jerina, 2010, Verde et al., 2008).
The latex from fig trees is highly irritating to
the skin and will burn off warts when applied
directly. This latex contains a mixture of en-
zymes known as ficin, which produces a prote-
olytic effect.
The fig tree was one of the magical plants
used to treat children with hernias on Saint
John’s night . To do this, a woman named
Juana and a man named Juan had to pass the
child through a partially broken off branch of a
fig tree, which was then retied to the tree. In
this way the hernia was believed to disappear
(Verde et al, 2008).
Other uses
The wood is very soft and is a poor firewood,
said to make lots of smoke and produce head-
ache. A popular folk saying states that “Fig
wood should be cut by my son and burned by
my daughter-in-law".

The fig tree is a fundamental
plant in Mediterranean cultures,
forming an important part of the
landscape, diet and traditional

Blanco, E. 1996. Higos y brevas: la curiosa
fructificación de la higuera. Quercus 120: 8-
Bustamante, J., Corriente, F. y Tilmatine, M.
2007. Kitābu´Umdati TTabib Fi Ma´Rifati
NNabāt likulli labib de Abulhayr Al´Isbili.
Mata, C. et al (eds.) 2010. Flora Ibérica, de lo
real a lo imaginario. Servicio de Investiga-
ción prehistórica del Museo de Prehistoria de
Valencia, Diputación de Valencia.
Tejerina, A. 2010. Usos y saberes sobre las
plantas de Monfragüe. Ed. Itomonfragüe.
Verde, A., Rivera, D., Fajardo, J., Obón, C. y
Cebrián, F. 2008. Guía de las plantas medi-
cinales de Castilla-La Mancha. Ed. Altabán.

Texts: José Fajardo and Alonso Verde
Pictures and drawing: José Fajardo
Design: Miguel R. Brotons


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