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A Fig's Tale

Missionaries< Hucksters< Desperately Lonely Wasps; What A Long< Strange Trip It's Been


"What fruit has the eye of a widow and the cloak of a beggar?" asks an old Spanish riddle. Answer: a really ripe fig, revealing its honeyed lusciousness by a teardrop of syrup at the bottom and a tattered skin.

For millenniums, voluptuous figs, fresh and dried, have inspired aficionados to mania. So much of the story of figs seems mythic: the miracle of caprification, in which a tiny, frustrated wasp plays Cupid to figs; the breakthrough a century ago that harnessed this process for California farmers; the saga of the Los Angeles promoter who founded a Fresno fig empire with 660,000 blasts of dynamite.

Today, the California fresh fig is enjoying a renaissance. Paradoxically, that is attributable, at least in part, to ruinously low prices for the dried ones. Fig lovers can look forward to increasing shipments of the best fresh varieties arriving at markets and farm stands this week.

Figs were introduced to California by Franciscan missionaries, starting with the founding of Mission San Diego in 1769. The dark-skinned, pink-fleshed Mission fig was the only kind grown here until the 1850s, when settlers brought other varieties from the East Coast and Europe.

After statehood, a modest fig industry developed in the Sacramento Valley, focused on dried figs. By the 1880s, growers recognized that the Fresno area--the hottest, driest part of the Central Valley--is ideally adapted to the fig and expanded their plantings there, mostly of the green-skinned Adriatic variety.

Only one thing was lacking: the Smyrna fig, the "true fig of commerce," which has a unique nutty flavor and brought the highest prices. In 1880, G.P. Rixford of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin imported 14,000 cuttings of this variety from Turkey, which he distributed to subscribers. The trees flourished, but, to everyone's dismay, the figs dropped, unripe, at walnut size.

After several more fruitless importations, many Californians concluded that they'd been hoodwinked by the Turks.

The problem was that, although most figs (called common figs) bear fruit to maturity on their own, Smyrna figs must be pollinated by Blastophaga psenes, the fig wasp. This gnat-sized insect lives only in dry, inedible wild figs, called caprifigs.

Since ancient times, Mediterranean growers have assisted this pollination process, called caprification, by hanging branches of caprifigs in Smyrna fig orchards as the female wasps emerge from the caprifigs in the spring, coated with pollen. Searching for new caprifigs in which to lay their eggs, they enter Smyrnas through the eyes at the bottom, and dust the tiny flowers inside with their pollen. The wasps die without laying their eggs, since the Smyrna fig flowers are too long for their ovipositors, but the figs develop.

Although many American fruit experts considered caprification to be a peasant superstition, growers repeatedly imported caprifigs; each time, something went wrong, and the wasps didn't take hold. Finally, George Roeding of Fresno succeeded in establishing a colony, and in August 1899 his orchard bore large, blond, plump Smyrna figs. After a contest, Roeding re-christened the variety Calimyrna, for California Smyrna.

California's big fig boom began in 1910, when a Los Angeles real estate developer named J.C. Forkner leased a swath of hog wallow badlands northwest of Fresno. To this point, the area had served only as pasture, because an adobe-like layer of hardpan lay a few feet under the surface and the pockmarked terrain made irrigation impossible.

But Forkner had a vision. He hired dozens of tractors, still novel in those years, to level the ground, blasted 660,000 holes through the hardpan so that trees could take root and planted figs on 12,000 acres. Next he blizzarded the nation with advertisements and brochures promising, "Own your own Fig Garden, You'll be rich! Five acres produce $4,000 annual income." Chasing this lure of profits in paradise, hundreds of aspiring farmers, many from the East, bought into Forkner's Fig Gardens.

A longtime Fresno fig grower, Harry Bud Buck, 80, remembers Forkner well, for his father supervised the western half of his plantings from 1918 to 1926 and later was his partner. "Mr. Forkner was quite a flamboyant character," he says. "He loved to regale people with stories about how good figs were, and why they should grow them. Others detested him thoroughly, but I liked him."

Most of the growers, then as now, were of Italian origin, with the old country's love and knowledge of figs. Although the vast majority of the harvest went to drying, in the 1920s a considerable market developed for canned Kadotas, with thick greenish-yellow skins. Shippers also started sending refrigerated carloads of fresh figs to the East.

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