Friday, August 21, 2009

The Involuted Inflorescence of the Syconium

Breakfast this morning: homemade granola topped with homemade yogurt flavored with vanilla and maple syrup, and chopped fresh figs. The whole combination is tangy, sweet, crunchy and creamy. The popping of the fig seeds between my teeth is one of my favorite food textures.

Figs are an interesting food. My brother tried to freak me out many years ago as I was eating a fresh fig by telling me that wasps lay their eggs in figs. I did not freak out, I’m proud to say, but filed the information away for later research. Many years later, I’m finally getting around to looking it up. This task is a heck of a lot easier with the Internet. And yes, it’s true… there’s a type of wasp called a fig wasp that is believed to have coevolved with the fig species so that the fig and the wasp cannot reproduce without each other! Amazing. More about this in a minute.

The so-called fig fruit is not actually a fruit. It’s a syconium, defined as a fleshy stem containing multiple flowers. Furthermore, the syconium is an involuted inflorescence, an inside-out cluster of flowers. Cut open the fig and the lines you see extending from the outer edge to the inside are the flowers, each with a seed at the end. Again, amazing.

As I was saying, several species of small wasps are intimately involved with figs. The wasps pollinate the figs by crawling into them through the ostiole, the small hole at the base of the fig, and laying their eggs inside. The species of wasp is specific to the species of fig and therefore a specific region, so that you can’t just grow any old fig in your yard and expect it to bear viable fruit. You have to have the right kind of wasp living nearby.

Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever found wasp larvae in my figs. Could it be that I just wouldn’t know them if I saw them or tasted them? I found this explanation on Wikipedia: “In figs of this sort [the sort that wasps pollinate], the crunchy bits in the fruit contain both seeds and wasps. However, there are several commercial and ornamental varieties of fig that are self-fertile and do not require pollination; these varieties are not visited by fig wasps.” I take that to mean that the types of figs sold as food are generally from self-pollinating species and I don’t have to worry about finding wasp eggs in them. Good to know.

As for their nutritional value, figs are a good source of fiber, potassium and manganese. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods, they’re also a fruit source of calcium, though you’d have to eat a lot of figs (about 8 medium figs) to get only 79 mg of calcium. Still, the more of these nutrients you get from your food, the less you need to get from supplements. And there are countless other nutrients supplied by whole plant foods, some of which haven’t even been discovered yet, let alone studied for their biochemical roles, that are believed to act synergistically with vitamins and minerals to help increase their absorption and facilitate their functioning in our bodies.

Figs are in season in the Pacific Northwest from July to September. This means you only have another month to get a hold of some wasp-free figs from your local farmers market. Enjoy them on salads, grilled and served with fish or pork, stewed along with your morning oatmeal, or just cut in half and smeared with a little goat cheese. Yes, I’ll say it one more time… amazing!

1 comment:

  1. While eating dinner at Dog Mountain Farm this past weekend I learned about the Fig Festival. Apparently there is someone on Mercer Island with a lot of figs in their yard - they weren't sure what to do and voila! the cultish Fig Festival was born. Now it is a fancy private party that is one of the hardest tickets in town to get. Now that I know..... I want in! Fun post to read - thanks