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The Fig Collectors

The fruit has a cult following, but at what cost to native flora?



We pedal our bikes through a gray industrial neighborhood in San Rafael, past warehouses, parking lots, shipping containers and auto shops. Vehicles roar by as we stop beside a tree hanging over a chain link fence. Under our feet are the remnants of the year's crop—splattered figs.

OPPORTUNE:  Fig trees make their homes almost anywhere. This wild San Rafael tree grew inside a wall. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ALASTAIR BLAND
  • Photos courtesy of Alastair Bland
  • OPPORTUNE: Fig trees make their homes almost anywhere. This wild San Rafael tree grew inside a wall.

It's November, and there are no fruits to taste today, but Maria and I have had them before—large black figs filled with sweet raspberry pulp—and today we've come for something better: the tree's wood. With a pair of rose cutters, I take several two-foot branch ends and drop them into my bike pannier.

Turning to my girlfriend, I quip a favorite tagline to outings like these: "We may not have any figs to take home, but at least we have the genes."

At my home in South Sebastopol, I cut the wood into six-inch sections and stick them into pots of moist garden soil. Within weeks, they'll sprout roots and leaves—replicate trees being born. Rooting figs is an easy process; cloning for dummies. Eventually, exact genetic copies of the San Rafael tree will be growing in my backyard orchard, along with a few dozen other fig varieties.

People have been doing this same thing for millennia. A native of the Old World, the common fig originated somewhere in the Middle East, and humans have cultivated it since the agricultural crack of daylight. Traders dispersed the species north into the Caspian basin, eastward into Asia and west to Africa and Europe. Figs arrived in North America with the Spaniards, who, along with their guns and cannons, packed along their favorite varieties, and the trees found their way to the West Coast with the missionaries. For many decades thereafter, fig trees grew in the gardens of Catholic mission churches and on small farms.

But Ficus carica has escaped the confines of California's agriculture industry. Accelerated by birds which eat the fruit and disperse their seeds, figs have gone wild and become a notorious invasive pest. In the Sacramento River valley, they have formed dense thickets along the banks of the river, smothering native plant communities. Conservation groups and agencies have tried with limited success to eradicate figs in several state parks.

But for another community of people, the invasive trees have created a playground for discovery. Driving along rural roads or bushwhacking through riverbed fig jungles, hobbyist fig growers are now tapping this resource for undiscovered treasures. In recent years they have found exceptional edible fruit on wild seedlings growing nowhere else. Propagated from cuttings in home gardens and marketed via online trading platforms, these new, genetically unique varieties have attained star stature and are finding their way into private fig collections nationwide. The Yolo Bypass fig was discovered several years ago in its namesake flood control channel near Sacramento and has become a prized collector's item on So have new varieties such as Belmont's Beauty, found growing along a cliff in the Sierra Nevada foothills; Holy Smokes, first collected from a Santa Barbara churchyard; and a colorful plethora of others from Lake Shasta to San Diego.

Sonoma County permaculture teacher and edible plant collector John Valenzuela discovered a wild fig tree near the Tiburon peninsula while riding a bicycle about 20 years ago. During the next fall fruiting season, he had his first taste of its jet-black figs.

"I was blown away by their beauty, outside and inside, their size, their flavor, and just the miracle of the tree being in that spot—you had to wade across a salty tidal ditch next to the freeway along a fence line," he recalls. "That was such a magical find."

Valenzuela began distributing cuttings of the tree, and he keeps potted copies of his own at the Hidden Forest Nursery, where he works. Here, Valenzuela grows about 20 fig varieties.

But Valenzuela's collection is eclipsed by others. In Napa, Aaron Nelson has about 50 different fig trees. Near Occidental, Gary Pennington has experimented with roughly 200 varieties, sold or discarded many, and now has about 80. A grower near the Delta town of Isleton, perhaps known best by his social media handle "Figaholics," has an orchard of more than 300 varieties. One Santa Barbara fig hunter, Eric Durtschi, has grown and evaluated roughly 800 varieties, many first collected from wild seedling trees.

Hundreds more collectors, connected via social media, are assembling extensive fig libraries across the continent, from Vancouver Island to Florida, from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. With proper seasonal care, most varieties will produce high-quality edible figs just about anywhere in the Earth's mid-to-lower latitudes. Fig growers enjoy ripe summer fruits in such boreal regions as British Columbia and even Sweden.

But California is a very special place for fig enthusiasts. That's because, within the United States, it's only here that Ficus carica grows wild. This came about through a string of events beginning in the late 19th century, when farmers of the San Joaquin Valley imported a fig from Western Turkey, near Smyrna. A yellow-skinned variety known as the Sari Lop, it was planted in large groves around the Fresno area. After several years, growers observed a disappointing pattern: Each July, their Sari Lop figs swelled to the size of a walnut, then shriveled and dropped without ever ripening.

Through several expeditions to the eastern Mediterranean to investigate local cultivation methods, the United States Department of Agriculture identified and solved the problem: Certain figs—Sari Lop among them—will not ripen unless pollinated by a particular species of wasp, Blastophaga psenes, a miniscule insect native to Western Eurasia. So, the USDA imported the fig wasp to California, as well as the hermaphroditic caprifig trees essential to the insect's life cycle. The industry promptly took off, the first successful crop of Sari Lop figs hit the market in the summer of 1899, and the variety—renamed locally the Calimyrna—became the state's signature commercial cultivar alongside the black mission, whose fruits ripen without pollination.