Lily’s Sweet Purple Figs

dark purple fig sliced in half

FIGS are one of Autumn’s ephemeral delights due to their luscious, but highly perishable fragile nature. Which also makes figs spendy (as Bri used to say), whether you buy them in the grocery store or at your local farmers market.

Fortunately for us, our dear Tai Chi classmate, Lily Wong, has been bringing her fig tree’s bountiful crop to share after our evening classes. Lily, a tiny Chinese lady with a constant smile, tells us she’s 85 or 90 depending on the effect she wants to achieve. I think of her as our class mascot, ’cause she’s a darling…and dedicated to Tai Chi practice. She  attends 4 or more classes a week. Can’t even imagine my 85-year-old parents doing Tai Chi like Lily does.

old Chinese lady holding a gift of fresh figs for her younger friend
Our Tai Chi friend, Lily, has been bringing figs to share after class every week.

We found out at Tuesday night’s class, week before last, that Lily took a spill from her ladder. What was she doing? Harvesting her purple figs, of course! A bit banged-up and bruised ~ no broken bones, thank goodness (!) and thank Tai Chi, which makes our bones strong ~ Lily managed to get herself over to her daughter’s house. Then spent the night in the hospital..for good measure. Her doctors may have been hoping to keep her off ladders at least overnight! She’s a quietly determined, independent woman….and as that folk saying goes: You can’t keep a good woman down for long!

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Thought you might enjoy a bit on the history of fig cultivation. Tips on eating fresh figs follow, and then I’ve gathered some links to yummy fig recipes for you to try.

Figs ~ Origin and Distribution

One of the first plants cultivated by humans – fossil records go back 9500 years indicating figs predate cultivation of wheat and legumes. While ancient history of the fig centers around the Mediterranean region, it’s thought to be indigenous to western Asia.

Botanically identified as Ficus carica L. (family Moraceae), figs are a unique genus embracing over 1,000 species, mostly giant “rubber trees,” primarily tropical plants though it’s commonly cultivated in many mild, Mediterranean-type climates. Fig-growing areas stretch from Afghanistan to southern Germany on to the Canary Islands. Figs were introduced into England some time between 1525 – 1548. Records are not clear when the common fig entered China, but by 1550, it was reported in Chinese gardens. European figs were eventually taken to China, Japan, India, South Africa and Australia.

The first figs in the Americas were planted in Mexico in 1560. Later introduced into California in 1769, when the San Diego Mission was established. Many special varieties were received from Europe in the eastern United States, where the fig reached Virginia in 1669. From Virginia, fig culture spread to the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Ethnic Figs in America

The great bulk of figs are varieties imported from Europe and the Middle East and from saved seedlings. Only a few varieties were brought into the U.S. until the annexation of California in 1848-49. Individual settlers there began importing figs in the early 1850s, but the great expansion of imports began in 1880, first with the efforts of the San Francisco Examiner to import the best Turkish varieties and, second with the establishment of an importation program in the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The Smyrna fig was brought to California in 1881-82, but it was not until 1900 that a special wasp was introduced to serve as pollinators, making commercial fig horticulture possible.

The USDA’s most noteworthy importation was nearly 100 varieties from Great Britain’s Chiswick Collection. Many of our best figs derive from them. Imports tapered off, but a few varieties continue to dribble in. The popular Chicago Hardy and Sal’s Fig many have been smuggled in by immigrants decades ago. Recent imports include ZIDI from Tunisia in the 1950s and NAZARI from Israel in 1997.

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TheCityCook has a helpful article with a series of questions on fresh figs, if you’re not familiar with eating them. Here’s an excerpt: 

How do I know a fig is ripe?
Figs do not ripen after they’re picked so they must be at their peak when harvested. This makes them particularly fragile and vulnerable to bruises and damage. Usually when figs are sold at a fruit stand or produce market, they’re ready to eat. When buying, look for figs that are tender to the touch and have a sweet fragrance. Touch each before you buy to make sure they haven’t become too soft, and thus over-ripe.

How do I store figs?
Because they’re perishable…buy figs only a day or two before you plan to eat them. Because they’re fragile, handle and store them carefully. Fresh figs should be refrigerated, but eaten at room temperature. Before eating, rinse…with cool water and gently wipe dry.

What do I do with fresh figs I want to eat raw?
First of all, do not peel a fig.  The skin is tender and flavorful so just trim off the tip of the stem…the rest of the fig is wonderfully edible.

The sweetness of the fig is an ideal counterbalance to the tang and the crumbly texture of a goat cheese chevre.  They can also be sliced and added to fennel and arugula salad.  (See other great fig recipes below.)

What’s the nutritional info on figs?
Rich in fiber, potassium and manganese, a single fig (about 2 1/2-inches in diameter) has about 50 calories.  They’re also a fruit source of calcium.

dark purple fresh figs presented in a narrow serving dish
A Fig Boat: Here’s a fun way to serve fresh figs, tucked one-by-one in a narrow serving dish.


A versatile fruit, figs can be grilled, stewed, baked, eaten raw, made into jam, baked in pastries and other baked goods.

Try our simple and delectable Goat Cheese Stuffed, Roasted Figs & Tropical Blossom Honey

and here’s Erin’s version: Goat Cheese Stuffed Figs

Chocolate Fig Bread Pudding With Spirited Sauce

Chocolate Spice Cake with Figs

Salad of figs with buffalo mozarella and jamón serrano

These yummy sounding figgy desserts:
Chocolate-Fig Banana Bread
Chewy Ginger-Molasses Fig Cookies
Chocolate Fig Crinkles
German Chocolate Cake With Broiled Fig and Coconut Topping

are found at

Black Fruit Salad with Figs and Brown-Sugar Crème Fraîche

Halloween Party Inspiration – Dark Food

Two-Fig Ice Cream

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And here are some folks’ comments about their fav way to enjoy figs:

~ Serving them with fresh raspberries and whipped cream.

~ A recent Wednesday evening started out with fresh Smyrna figs…which I transferred to a wheat crust pizza also topped with olive oil, shaved Asiago cheese, cracked black pepper, salt and arugula….

September 22nd 2009
~ From Jess Watson: One of my fav fig dessert recipes ever!?? Cornmeal and rosemary crust, lemon marscapone cream filling topped with figs brushed with honey and currant jelly. It’s amazing!

~ From MerylCA: It’s Jamie Oliver’s “Sexiest, Easiest Salad Ever” and it is both of those things!

September 23rd 2009

~ From thebakingbird: A few weeks ago I concocted a great pizza consisting of: prosciutto, fresh figs, Gorgonzola, red onion, mozzarella, and rosemary. I may have added some walnuts too but I can’t remember. I hope to incorporate them into some baked good (maybe bran muffins?) soon! Long live figs!!!
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Where to Buy Fig Trees (Canada) (CT / MA)

Fig trees grow 10-30 ft (3-9 m) high, with numerous spreading branches and a trunk rarely more than 7 in (17.5 cm) in diameter…though MUCH larger with maturity and in California. The root system is typically shallow and spreading, sometimes covering 50 ft (15 m) of ground, but in permeable soil some of the roots may descend to 20 ft (6 m). The deciduous leaves are palmate, deeply divided into 3 to 7 main lobes, these more shallowly lobed and irregularly toothed on the margins. The blade is up to 10 in (25 cm) in length and width, fairly thick, rough on the upper surface, softly hairy on the underside. It contains copious milky latex.

What is commonly accepted as a fig “fruit” is technically a synconium, that is, a fleshy, hollow receptacle with a small opening at the apex partly closed by small scales. It may be obovoid, turbinate, or pear-shaped, 1 to 4 in (2.5-10 cm) long, and varies in color from yellowish-green to coppery, bronze, or dark-purple. Tiny flowers are massed on the inside wall. In the case of the common fig discussed here, the flowers are all female and need no pollination.

There are 3 other types, the ”Caprifig” which has male and female flowers requiring visits by a tiny wasp, Blastophaga grossorum; the “Smyrna” fig, needing cross pollination by Caprifigs in order to develop normally; and the “San Pedro” fig which is intermediate, its first crop independent like the common fig, its second crop dependent on pollination. The skin of the fig is thin and tender, the fleshy wall is whitish, pale-yellow, or amber, or more or less pink, rose, red or purple; juicy and sweet when ripe, gummy with latex when unripe. Seeds may be large, medium, small or minute and range in number from 30 to 1,600 per fruit.

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Figs ~ Origin and Distribution:
Adapted from and

Ethnic Figs in America ~ Details are given in Gustav Eisen’s The Fig: Its History, Culture and Curing.

TheCityCook (

For more Fig Facts, check out:

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