Originally published August 2011
By Gael Hawkins
August visitors to Ocracoke are privileged to experience an annual island tradition-the harvesting of Ocracoke figs. For the uninitiated, this experience will be a culinary highlight. One bite of a ripe, juicy, sweet fig will make anyone a true convert to man’s centuries-old love affair with this luscious treat.
Ficus carica is a deciduous shrub (not a real tree) native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. With bright green heavily lobed leaves and ample branching, it makes an attractive addition to any suitable landscape. Moderate climate, sandy soil with ample drainage and low acidity make the ideal environment. It is believed to be one of the first plants cultivated by humans as evidenced by fig fossils found in Neolithic villages dating to 9400-9200 B.C.
Figs were first transported to the New World by Spanish and Portugese missionaries in the early 16th Century. Records indicate that figs were cultivated in 1526 in Espanola (now Cuba) and that only one fig bush per family was allowed in order to prevent competition with Spain. Ficus carica is unique in a genus of perhaps 1,000 species of mostly giant “rubber trees” because is bears edible fruit. This fruit is actually an inverted flower that blooms internally.
There are four types of figs: the Common fig which requires no pollination because all of the flowers are female, the Caprifig which contains both male and female flowers and therefore requires a visit from a specialized wasp, the Smyrna which requires cross pollination with a Caprifig, and the San Pedro which bears an independent first crop like the Common fig but whose second crop is dependent on pollination. These peculiar differences were the source of much frustration for early cultivators who were often confounded by barren plants. Much information has been written about the fig including the familiar passage in 1 Kings, 4:25 –“Each man under his own vine and fig tree” denoting peace and prosperity.
To get the inside story about figs on Ocracoke, I knew just the man to ask. Chester Lynn, an Ocracoke native, florist and storyteller, is the go-to guy for all things “figgy”. Chester is certain that figs were grown on Portsmouth and Ocracoke Islands before 1810. Since figs are highly perishable and once picked, a fig will ripen no more, most early figs were preserved in some way. Cloves, coconut and cinnamon were favorite additives to preserves. Figs were also candied whole with the stems intact. Drying, a technique so popular in fig preservation throughout the world, was not widely used on Ocracoke.
Chester has identified more than nine cultivars growing on the island. The Brown Turkey is really more reddish in hue, is a mid-season ripener and is very prolific. It is very popular for traditional Ocracoke preserves. The Pound Fig, so called because it is very large, is more purple in color and smells of cinnamon. The Pound Fig bush can grow quite tall, too. Chester can remember a Pound Fig at his aunt’s that had a porch swing dangling from its branches. The Sugar Fig, with its coppery skin, is the smallest local fig. It is best eaten right off the bush-there are only 3 or 4 Sugar Fig bushes on Ocracoke and they don’t produce enough to make preserves. The small yellow Lemon Fig is a late bearer, and is also called a Marseilles Fig. It is very sweet and not the least bit lemony. The big, green Portsmouth Fig is not sweet, and looks like small watermelon. It is best used in a cooked mixture with other types of figs. The Late Fig is a very dark purple cultivar that ripens in October but does not produce abundantly. The Blue Fig is rare on Ocracoke and is actually purple. It is delicious and prolific but not widely grown here. And the most popular, the Celeste Fig, is a more compact plant full of leaves that produces early in the season and is very easy to grow.
While you are strolling through the village, see if you can spot some of these local fig plants. The plants will probably be surrounded by a thick ring of oyster and other shells since it is believed by many that these shells provide necessary lime to fertilize the figs. Chester told me an old Ocracoke story to help prove his theory that the current shell mulch practice is not really effective. He remembers that as a child, people would say that a dying fig tree was lonely and had lost its will to bear when the people living near it moved away. He says that the left-over pot liquor from boiled fish and vegetables was poured on the fig bushes and that the freshly shucked shells of oysters and clams were tossed around them. It wasn’t the actual shells that fertilized-it was the bits of meat and juices that provided the required nutrients. When someone ceased this routine by moving away, the fig did suffer though not from loneliness.
No conversation about figs can end without mention of the famous Ocracoke Fig Cake. We all take it for granted that there was always our beloved fig cake. Not so, according to Chester. While fig preserves were used as filling between layers of cakes for ages here, it was Margaret Garrish who invented the one we all adore. She didn’t have any dates for her date cake so she substituted figs instead. Figs are most versatile. They can be grilled, broiled, boiled and pureed. They can be sweet or savory. And they can be baked into Margaret’s delicious cake. Enjoy some while you are here and take some home to remind you of Ocracoke all through the winter.