The Fig Collectors 

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

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But besides allowing Smyrna-type fig varieties to ripen, the fig wasp does another remarkable thing: It makes fig seeds fertile, thereby enabling populations of figs to sexually reproduce. Thus, as the wasps became established in California, fig trees began sprouting like weeds.

In the Old World, wild figs grow from the cobblestones of ancient architecture, like Roman bridges and castle turrets. In California, their bushy foliage is seen beside parking lots and gas stations, irrigation ditches and chain link fences, train tracks and freeways. I once saw a small fig growing from the top of a palm tree in a San Diego bus station, and a thicket of figs was recently removed from under a highway overpass in San Rafael. Watchful Amtrak riders may see wild figs out the window between Antioch and Martinez.

Introducing the wasp to California opened a Pandora's box of untasted figs, which are now spilling onto the landscape. The fig wasp's range is limited by an intolerance of harsh winters, restricting them to the United States' coastal southwest, but wherever they fly, wild figs grow.

This makes much of the state a fig collector's paradise.

"To have the generation of new varieties right here, I think it's so exciting," Nelson, in Napa, says.

The self-generating engine of the fig-wasp partnership makes fig control efforts seem almost hopeless.

"It's heartbreaking," says Katherine Holmes, the deputy executive director with the Solano County Resource Conservation District. "Fig is a terrible invader of a very narrow niche—riparian woodland. It doesn't invade everywhere, but where it does invade is precious habitat, and it totally takes over."

Holmes has worked on fig eradication programs in the Central Valley, where F. carica is overwhelming the last remnant parcels of native riparian forest. Holmes says she has personally killed thousands of fig trees using a combination of chainsaws and herbicides, and in isolated spots, including Caswell Memorial State Park, she and her colleagues have had success.

However, the species is only tightening its grip on the landscape elsewhere. The trees spread via root suckers and seed dispersal and can overtake large areas and push out native plants. Holmes says just several percent of the Central Valley's riparian woodlands remain intact, and fig trees threaten their survival.

F. carica is spreading through Southeast Marin County, and fig seeds are apparently sprouting around the East Bay. The Berkeley-based California Invasive Plant Council's WeedMapper program, a user-generated database, shows wild fig reports from West Oakland's Willow Street, the Marina Park Pathway in Emeryville, a suburban yard in San Ramon and a hillside just west of Discovery Way in Concord, among more locations.

Pennington says he often sees enormous wild figs while driving in the Central Valley, but he isn't particularly interested in inspecting or propagating them. Instead, he has focused on established, if still hard to find, cultivars, many of ancient French and Portuguese origins.

"All these new, terrific figs keep coming along, but if you're chasing new seedlings, you can't keep up," he says.

Most wild figs produce fruit that is dry, pithy or simply unremarkable. One in a handful will produce fruit worth pulling off the road to taste, and among these head-turners, a rare few are standouts. When collectors find them, they keep locations secret and, using evocative, drippy names like Cherry Cordial, Raspberry Latte, Crema di Mango, Gold Rush and so on, they can score thousands of dollars in branch cutting sales.

But the hype quickly tails off as cuttings from the mother tree are distributed far and wide. Soon, the variety becomes an established component of the global fig inventory, and the relevance of the original seedling tree as a source of unique genetics is reduced to another blur of roadside shrubbery.

Fig Swap

I spent one summer after another in my 20s and 30s bike camping through Europe and Turkey. I got lost in beautiful mountains, weathered terrible storms, dodged men with guns, learned new languages, saw bears and ran out of food—but the focus of those outings was figs. The roadsides offered an unending buffet, and as I cycled between Portugal and the Black Sea, I ate countless fig varieties, interviewed local growers and observed distinctive regional variations in shape and flavor. I even visited government germplasm collections in Greece and Georgia.

Today, my relationship with figs is more grounded. I began building a potted collection around 2014, mostly sourced from unidentified trees in Marin County. When I bought a property in 2017, the floodgates opened. I purchased a few new varieties, replicated ones I really loved, acquired more from other growers, and eventually built up a potted and planted orchard of more than 50 varieties. Twelve feet between trees seemed prudent when I got started; now I'm making excuses for squeezing them in at six feet.

The attraction of the untasted keeps all of us grabbing up more. The day before Christmas, I pay a visit to Pennington's home to make a trade. I bring him a small Burgan Unknown while he sets aside for me extras of two of his favorites, Bordissot Blanca-Negra and Del Sen Juame Gran, in five-gallon pots. I offer him cuttings of Black Zadar and Grantham's Royal. If Pennington is trying to cull his collection, which lines his driveway in plastic pots and half wine barrels, I'm not helping.


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