Figs in the Garden: A Global Passion
“Fig people are crazy,” says Harvey Correia as he fills my cupped hands with fragile figs that are so ripe several ooze honey-colored liquid from the eye on their fat bottoms. I can’t tell if Correia considers himself a fig person, but he’s been talking figs for more than an hour. I’ve just been eating them — the large, plump, green ‘Strawberry Teardrop;’ the nearly black ‘Col de Dame Noir’ with its sparkling, nearly purple jam interior; the striped ‘Martinenca Rimada’ with pale seeds swimming in sweet magenta flesh; the green-and-bubble-gum-pink ‘Janice Seedless Kadota’ — ripping them in half with sticky fingers and slurping.
“Here’s one named for an island of France,” he says, plopping another into my palm. “And this one is ‘Rob’s Genovese Nero.’ I don’t care if the tractor hits it. But this one,” he says pointing to another, “this one is the ‘Black Madeira.’ That’s the money tree, wanted so badly in Thailand and Malaysia.”
According to Correia, a ‘Black Madeira’ tree has sold on the Thai black market for 250,000 Thai baht, the equivalent of almost $8,000, in a country where the average monthly wage is estimated at about $450.
“It’s amazing what people will do,” he says, describing offers he’s received from international fans of his YouTube channel, Figaholics, and his 5,700-follower-strong Facebook page.
He describes fig people who keep their collections in their garage, wheeling the pots into the sunshine every day. “I mean, I can understand wanting to keep a few of the really good ones around, but do you really need 200?” he asks.
I glance ironically at his tidy rows of more than 350 thick-leaved cultivars and lick my lips, which are starting to burn from enzymes in the fig skin. But when Correia hands me another, a green-gold ‘Sierra,’ I tear it apart with gusto.
Correia is a third-generation farmer growing chestnuts for business and figs for pleasure in the Sacramento Delta region of California, but online, he’s a fig celebrity. He points to a tree in front of us with variegated yellow and green leaves, called ‘Jolly Tiger.’ A Thai businessman offered him $3,000 to dig it up and send it to him illegally. Correia declined.
“Correia is probably one of the most influential fig gurus for Thai people,” says Oranut Naowakate as she unties a purple mesh bag protecting a cluster of black figs from birds and insects. From her nursery on a small mountain, we have a hazy view over the flat plateau of northern Thailand’s dry rice fields. Up here, the morning is surprisingly crisp.
Naowakate fell in love with Mediterranean figs, Ficus carica, after seeing them for the first time on Facebook. She planted a couple of trees in 2013, just for fun. She now has about 500 trees in the ground and more than 300 cultivars. “I thought, ‘Wow, so much variety, and all of them beautiful,’ ” she says. “Why not try to collect them all in Thailand?”
I lean in for a photo of a particularly pretty plant with mottled yellow, white, and green leaves, and she jokes, “Don’t touch my expensive tree.” It’s the ‘Jolly Tiger,’ and the original 6-inch-long cutting cost her 13,000 baht ($400) in 2016. It was a profitable purchase, as she’s made around 1 million baht since then redistributing air-layered grafted trees to other Thai collectors.
“But prices are going to go down,” she says, because figs are becoming more common in northern Thailand. She foresees a commercial industry, which will be built on research started 30 years ago.
Royal Research into Cash Crops
“It’s not like figs are new to Thailand. Actually, figs have been in Thailand since at least 2528 [on the Buddhist calendar, which is equivalent to 1985]. They came in with the King’s Project.”
In January 1969, King Bhumibol departed sweltering Bangkok for the royal palace overlooking Chiang Mai, a city in the mountainous far northern Chiang Mai province, which borders Myanmar and Laos.
He had a reason for spending some time in the north of his kingdom: The hill tribes in the area — the Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, and Akha — had quit their nomadic lifestyles and settled down to farm opium poppies. In the 1960s, Thailand formed a corner of the Golden Triangle, a region the size of Nevada that produced the majority of the world’s opium. Drug battles raged across the borders, slash-and-burn land clearing practices destroyed the forested hillsides, and pesticides and erosion were clouding the headwaters of the mighty Chao Phraya River, which runs south all the way to Bangkok.
The king hoped that hill people living in these cooler climes might be persuaded to grow cash crops that caused less social and environmental destruction, such as peaches, or strawberries, or maybe figs.
Figs were already somewhat familiar to Thai people because they have their own native species. Naowakate remembers her mother peeling hard, unripe figs to dip into salty, spicy nam prik sauce, or to eat fresh. It was probably F. racemosa, she says, Thailand’s most common species, but it could also have been F. semicordata or F. fistulosa, which Thais cook and eat like starchy meatballs on top of khanom jeen, Thai spaghetti. Ormaybe F. auriculata, commonly cooked into curries.
“Where I grew up, the jungle is so fertile that trees will fruit from the top to the bottom, red and pink figs, that size.” She draws a circle about an inch and a half in diameter, describing tree trunks lost under a heavy curtain of fruit.
The fig is also symbolic of Buddhism, Thailand’s official religion. Almost every temple has an ancient, gnarled Sacred Fig tree (F. religiosa) reigning over the courtyard. Perhaps for the devout king, the fig was the perfect figurehead for his endeavor to reduce suffering in his kingdom. Or perhaps the king was another fig person; it is said that as a schoolboy in Switzerland, King Bhumibol grew partial to sweet, plump, gooey Mediterranean figs. Why not bring them to Thailand?
In 1973, the king founded the first Royal Agricultural Station, a research center under the auspices of the non-profit Royal Project Foundation, in Doi Ang Khang, near Chiang Mai. Charupahant Thongtham, who was the head of fig research, says he remembers introducing three Californian cultivars (purplish ‘Brown Turkey,’ yellow ‘Conadria,’ and dark ‘Black Mission’) as well as ‘White Marseille,’ a French favorite of Thomas Jefferson. All are “common figs,” meaning they self-pollinate and will produce fruit without the presence of Mediterranean fig wasps.
But while other Royal Project crops flourished and were introduced to the tribes, by the end of the 1980s, figs were dropped from the program. The trees barely produced, their trunks were attacked by longhorn beetles, and their leaves contracted rust from rain. Without the long, dry summers of Turkey or California, the fruits cracked and molded. Thongtham concluded that figs were best left to the hobbyists.
Making Thailand’s Figs Fruitful
“I think the mistake was thinking that since Thailand is a tropical country, you have to plant figs on high mountains,” says Supattanakij Poswang, from the Department of Agriculture. Poswang has been growing figs at the Royal Agricultural Station in Chiang Mai for the last five years. He says there’s definitely a future in figs for Thai farmers.
The problem that figs can answer, he says, is that traditional fruit crops like banana or papaya sell for such low prices it’s difficult for farmers to make a living growing them. Figs fetch a good price on the market, currently 250 to 500 baht per kilogram ($4 to $8 per pound). The trees mature quickly, putting out fruit in a year or less, and in a country without winter, they can fruit eight or nine months of the year.
He points out that the Doi Ang Khang Station, where figs were first introduced, sits almost 4,600 feet above sea level. The daily average temperature is only 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and the coldest months can dip below freezing. While fig trees easily survive frosts occurring at 10 to 20 degrees, the cool mountain didn’t provide the long, hot, arid summers of the Mediterranean.
“I don’t think figs are good for high mountains,” Poswang says. “A little height is okay. I think figs are good for Pang Da Station, at about 2,270 feet elevation. And at Chiang Mai, at about 1,150 feet elevation, I plant them and they can grow.”
Poswang currently has about 25 cultivars in a covered plot a little larger than an acre, protected from rust and rot by plastic roofing. The trees are quite productive, he says. At Pang Da Station, they have nearly 2 acres of fig trees. In January 2018, the researchers sent 1,360 pounds to Royal Project shops and restaurants in Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
The biggest challenge, Poswang says, is convincing Thai consumers that squishy, succulent figs aren’t full of insects. Native Thai figs fill with maggots and creepy crawlies the moment they soften, which is why in Thai cuisine figs are cooked while they’re still hard and starchy.
“People believe there are bugs inside,” Naowakate says. “People get put off.”
She plucks a blue-black Spanish ‘Pota de Cavall’ and plops it into my hand. It’s a lot like Correia’s ‘Black Madeira,’ she says. She doesn’t have that one yet, but maybe she will soon.
How to Grow Flourishing Figs
Figs have been adapted to grow well in Zones 8 to 10, but they can also be planted in Zone 7 in a protected site. In other areas, you could grow semi-dwarf cultivars in containers and move them to a protected area during the winter.
Plant fig seedlings outdoors in spring after the risk of a hard freeze has passed. They prefer fertile, well-drained soil; a planting site rich in organic matter; and full or partial sun. Allow at least 6 feet between plants in temperate climates, where they’ll grow as broad bushes, or 15 feet in climates with mild winters, where they’ll grow into trees. Mulch well, and water regularly. During the dormant season, remove all dead or weak branches to encourage growth.
Figs change colors and soften as they become ripe. Taste-test fruits from the tree often; ripe figs do not tolerate hot weather well. Harvest your figs wearing gloves and long sleeves, because the plants’ sap can irritate your skin. Refrigerate your harvest immediately. Or, for long-term storage, figs can be dried, frozen, or canned in syrup.
Lindsay Gasik is a self-described fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her blog at www.YearOfTheDurian.com.
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