Today’s photographs of Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’, or the ‘Brown Turkey’ common fig, were taken in UBC Botanical Garden’s Food Garden. The Garden currently has two fig trees (the other is Ficus carica ‘Desert King’). Both trees are espaliered, and currently in flower. ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Desert King’ are the two common fig cultivars traditionally considered able to withstand Vancouver’s climate, but some gardening experts suggest perhaps six different cultivars may be able to endure the warming winters of British Columbia’s southern coast (see: Changing weather and changing crops on south coast via the Vancouver Sun).
The first memorable time I encountered figs was while traveling in Morocco where I saw many fig trees, and also ate quite a bit of the dried fruit purchased from vendors at market stalls in the medinas. They were often displayed in baskets or hanging on strings right on the edge of the small pathways, and consequently were covered in a layer of dust. Nevertheless, they were still tasty.
This deciduous shrub or small tree species belongs to the Moraceae (the mulberry or fig family) and is thought to be native specifically to southern Arabia (ref: Janick and Paull’s The Encyclopedia of Fruit & Nuts), but many references will instead state it is native to western Asia and the Mediterranean. Due to a long history of cultivation, Ficus carica is considered an ancient fruit (PDF). This is likely the reason for the uncertainty about its native distribution. Figs are cultivated globally in tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. Modern-day production is over one million metric tons (2006 data).
Exceptional specimens of Ficus carica have attained heights of 12m (ref: Janick and Paull), but more typical heights in cultivation are 5 to 8m. Plants have large, palmate and hairy 3-5-lobed leaves attached to silvery-barked branches. The shiny receptacle or syconium houses the small green flowers, which are invisible unless this infructescence is opened (as in the first photograph). Wayne Armstrong’s always-excellent teaching site explains the life-cycle of Ficus carica (scroll down to the section titled “Summary of the Ficus carica Life Cycle”), but note also that he concludes his discussion with mention that ‘Brown Turkey’ is parthenocarpic. Unlike the natural species which requires a fig-wasp (Blastophaga psenes) to pollinate, the fruits of ‘Brown Turkey’ will ripen without pollination.
Fig fruits are considered an excellent source of minerals, vitamins and fibre, as well as being fat- and cholesterol-free. According to R. Veberic et al., a study of some cultivars grown in Slovenia’s coastal region also demonstrated that the fruits contained phenolic substances associated with positive effects on human health, such as antioxidant effects and possible prevention of cardiovascular diseases and cancer (see: Veberic, R. et al. 2008. Phenolic acids and flavonoids of fig fruit (Ficus carica L.) in northern Mediterranean region. Food Chemistry. 106:153-157).