Saturday, 21 September 2013

Common Fig (Ficus carica)

Fig in a pot
      Drainpipes were a speciality of mine. I could tell from a quick look whether a pipe would hold my weight or simply come away from the wall, taking me with it. Or at least I liked to think I could. An incident which indicated a degree of fallibility in my judgement occurred  way back in the seventies when a crowd of us were locked out of a house in Blackheath in south London:

      I was staying for a few days with friends who lived with their parents and we'd just got back to the house after a visit to the pub when Georgia and Jim, the friends, discovered that neither had got their keys with them. Mum and dad were out for the night, which was rather the point, because we'd met a number of other friends in the pub and were intent on having a bit of a party. Everyone was ready to give in and go back to the pub when I noticed that one of the drainpipes passed very close to a first-floor lavatory window and the small, horizontally opening top window was open a crack.

      "I could get through that", I said, squinting upwards with the confidence imbued by a couple or so pints of bitter.

      "Nah. Not possible", said Georgia in her Cockney accent "carm own, let's gow back t' the Nag's 'Ed" (eat your heart out, Dick Van Dyke).

      I grabbed hold of the drainpipe and tested it with a professional air.

      "Safe as houses", I commented, although it looked as if it'd  been fitted around the time of the Roman invasion, and I started to climb while everyone crowded round to watch.

      I'd got around fifteen feet up when the pipe gave a lurch and the upper fastenings slipped out by about an inch. Only a couple of rusty screws were somehow still holding it (and me) to the wall.

      "Ooh", came the cries of a couple of adoring girls in the audience (with the optimism of hormone filled youth trying to impress the opposite sex, my translation was 'adoring' when in fact there was probably a stronger element of 'wish the bugger'd fall off'' - an ethos similar to that among crowds who watch formula one with the almost subconscious yearning to see a crash).

      "Oh, shit", I heard Jim say, and was quite touched that he was scared for me until he continued, "Dad'll kill me when 'e sees that drainpipe"

      Desperately I lunged for the window-sill and held tight with one hand, taking some of the weight off the drainpipe screws, then I inched gingerly higher until, taking a deep breath, I was able to transfer my hand to the bottom lip of the open window. Holding onto this, I stepped from the drainpipe to stand on the sill. Then I put my hand through and was able to open the window fully before starting the process of going through it.

      "Ee'll not get 'is 'ead through, said one of the wags. Although this was no doubt meant as an insulting comment, I'd read somewhere that if you can get your head through an orifice, it is possible to follow with the rest of your body. However, reading a theory and being twenty foot up on a window sill about to test it, are slightly different.  The thought struck me that if my head didn't fit I may spend the rest of my life standing on this narrow strip of wood - there was no way I was trusting my future to a descent via that drainpipe.

      The window was about a foot high, so I got my head through sideways easily enough, but my shoulders were a different matter and it took a lot of wriggling before I was far enough through to get my hands on the inner sill. The next step was to walk my hands down onto the toilet seat, which was directly below the window. I managed to get my left hand on, then was carefully getting the other one in position when the seat came off. I then found that surfing lavatory seats is not one of my strong points: I shot down with my chin bouncing off the ceramic bowl and ended up in a semi conscious heap on the floor, still clutching the seat. From below they simply saw the bottom half of my body suddenly disappear through the window, as if the house were a giant vacuum cleaner that had just sucked me in. All this was accompanied by a high pitched, strangulated yell as that bit of metal which sticks up on a window frame made a fair try at castrating me.

      "Er, watch out for the seat, it's a bit loose", I heard Jim shout. I was quite interested to know the difference between 'a bit' and 'totally' - there's obviously a bigger language divide between north and south than I'd been aware of.

      My meteoric arrival had caused the door to slam shut and I now staggered to my feet with a view to opening it, going downstairs and letting everyone in at the front door - the hero of the hour and the focus of my girl fans.

      During the first stage of this victory jaunt the handle came off in my hand, a fraction of a second after another of Jim's hails reached me:

      "Er, watch out for the door handle, it's a bit...."

      "Loose", I screamed back at him, as I looked at it and fondly visualised how far a door handle could be inserted into Jim, "I'm now locked in", I added in a more reasonable voice. For some reason, this amused the wags down below and there was a guffaw of laughter.

      "I'll call the fire brigade", came Jim's ever-helpful voice, "they'll bring a ladder".

      "And then there'll be me and a fireman trapped in the bog. Who's going to rescue him?" I bellowed, wishing he'd just shut up and let me think.

       My only hope lay in the chance that the square rod which goes through the lock was still visible. If I could manoeuvre it back to my side of the door I may be able to carefully slot the handle back on, turn it, and make my escape. Luckily, when I bent, I could see it was still there, halfway through the door. It took me about ten minutes gingerly clawing at it with my pen-knife while two of the drunks in the garden helpfully accompanied my efforts with  that song about two incarcerated old ladies.

      When I finally made my escape and opened the front door with a flourish, the adoring girls had gone. They hadn't given a fig about my heroism - they'd just wanted blood and my failure to join them on the ground, complete with drainpipe, was a bit of a disappointment.

      And talking about figs (subtle join, eh?), for years now, I've been growing one in a tub and it regularly produces six or seven edible fruits. The fact that the roots are contained by the tub is an asset, because figs are known to yield best in such confinement: in greenhouses they have been grown historically in beds with sunken flagstones or suchlike sunk to create the same effect. Given free root run there is a tendency to get plenty of nitrogen which goes towards promoting leaf growth. This is a characteristic of many plants: make them feel slightly under threat and the reaction is to produce offspring to take over in the case of parental death.
Successful fig cutting

      A disadvantage suffered by a plant in a container is that the roots have far less protection in very cold weather than they do if penetrating deep underground. For this reason, I thought I'd lost the plant in the extreme winter a couple of years ago. All the top growth was dead. I tried to pull it out in order to use the container for something else, but it was completely jammed in and I temporarily gave up. This was lucky because a few weeks later some green shoot appeared and it is now back to its old self, having had a near death experience. The lesson in this, of course, is to wrap outdoor containers in bubble wrap or hessian to give a bit of winter protection. Also allow it a bit of time, even though it looks dead.

      The fig, Ficus carica (closely related to the rubber tree), originates in Western Asia and the Mediterranean, so you wouldn't expect to see it growing wild in Britain. However, it turns out there are a lot of them growing along the banks of the River Don in Sheffield. Apparently they date back to the time when Sheffield led the world in producing steel. This involved taking water from the river and using it in the cooling process. When the water was returned to the river, it was warm enough to cause the Don to run at a constant 20deg.C. - the temperature required for fig seeds to germinate. As further proof of this as a cause, the trees stopped germinating after the industry collapsed, although those already growing continued to thrive.
Cross-section showing the strange inner flowers
      Figs are, botanically speaking, not actually fruits - they are swollen stems with the minute flowers inside and some forms need pollinating by a specially adapted wasp: this crawls in through the small orifice at the tip of the fruit and begins a complicated life-cycle which is beneficial to both itself and the fig. However the cultivated fig we commonly grow doesn't need pollination (it is parthenocarpic), so there's no danger of eating wasps in a fig butty. They can be easily propagated by taking cuttings in summer. I've even got them to root very successfully in water in the warmth of the house.
Next year's embryonic fruit in leaf axils near tip. Remove larger ones below.
      Knowing when the fig is ready for harvesting is easy: wait til it goes a dark colour, softens, and hangs down rather than being held horizontally. Cracking is another indication of ripeness. In a warm climate it isn't unreal to expect up to four crops in a year, however in Britain one is a more realistic aim. The buds lower down the shoots become too large and tender to last the winter, so these should be removed in autumn. This causes stimulation of the new fruits which are developing like little marbles at the tips of the shoots.

Ripe Fig

      I spotted an interesting fig recipe in a blog by The Novice Gardener tap here. She does some really good stuff on growing and using - well worth a visit.


  1. John, what a funny story and informative post about fig growing, with a great surprise at the end! Thank you for the shout-out, very kind of you! :-)

  2. I can remember several occasions when you have had to get in windows for us or neighbours who have been locked out. That little bit of sticking up metal always took you by surprise! :)