Ficus carica

Fig tree                                                                                                                 Συκιά

Moraceae - fig family                                                                                           Dicot.


The humble fig tree (Ficus carica) is easily recognised by large leaves, its gnarled trunks and twisted branches with smooth silvery bark and soft, sweet, exotic fruits, but the fig is more interesting than at first apparent. It is an ancient species which arose in the laurel forests of the Tertiary Period, and fossil figs have been identified from 40 million years ago1, when the world was warmer and moister than today; it now thrives in the Mediterranean climate, with its hot dry summers and cold wet winters.

 The fig is thought to be the first ever fruit to be cultivated by man; a carbonised fig has been found at a neolithic cave site at Gilgal, in the Jordan Valley, dating back more than 11,000 years2, about 1,000 years before the domestication of cereals. It was spread by early man around the Mediterranean, where it continued to be nutritionally, culturally and economically important. The ancient Greeks believed it to have been created by Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and Odysseus clung to a fig tree to save himself from Charybdis (vide infra) 
The famous Swedish Botanist, Linnaeus observed that the plant does not have flowers. The flowers are hidden inside the tiny hard immature fig, which later develops into the fruit; this is not a true fruit, however, but a false fruit (a syconium). 

The flowers are fertilised by a small wasp; each species has a special relationship with a single wasp species (Blastophaga psenes)1,3. The female wasp carries pollen from the male flowers in the fig in which she was born and enters a tiny hole at the tip of the fig, pollinating the female flowers and then laying her eggs; the true fruits then develop inside the fig. 

It was noted by Theophrastus in 3rd Century B.C. that in order for cultivated figs to develop, it was necessary to hang branches of wild fig from which the pollinating insects emerge.  This process, known as caprification, continued into modern times, when branches of wild figs (ornoi) were sold on the streets in Athens.

Herre et al. Fig wasps are wonderful. The Evolution of Mating Systems in Insects and Arachnids. Cambridge University Press. 1997. 
Mordechai et al. Early Domesticated Fig in the Jordan Valley. Science. Jun 2006.
Murray. Figs (Ficus spp.) and fig wasps; hypotheses for an ancient symbiosis. Biological Journal of the Linnanaen Society. 1985.
Tyrwhitt. Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside. Denise Harvey, 1998

Odysseus and the fig tree

On his hazardous return from Troy, Odysseus had to pass between two rocky islands. On one lived the hideous  Scylla, with twelve long necks each with a ghastly head, who plucks from the sea any  sword-fish, dolphin, sea monster or ships crew, that came within her grasp.  Under the opposite rock lies Charybdus who sucks in the sea and spews it out three times a day, swallowing down, into the roaring sea; no ship has ever passed by and survived.

Advised by the goddess Circe, Odysseus steered his ship close to Scylla’s rock as it was better to loose six men than his ship and the whole crew. As they passed by six men were plucked from the ship and were devoured by the horrendous Scylla. Mourning their comrades and exhausted from their trials the crew insisted on landing on the Island of the Sun, where they rested and feasted on  roast meat. Zeus was furious and when the ship set sail he conjured up high winds and raging seas, sending down a thunder bolt which smashed the ship, tossing the crew into the water. The gales drove Odysseus, clinging to the ruined timbers of his ship, back to the two horrific rocks and towards the whirlpool of Charybdus. From the craggy rocks above the roaring sea a great fig tree grew, as he passed by, Odysseus reached out and clung, like a bat to the stout branches until, hours later, Charybdus spewed out again the timbers. Odysseus astride the logs, rowed with his hands and after drifting for several days arrived alone on the island of  Calypso.

Cupressus sempervirens
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