News

Ocracoke figs head to the White House

Chester Lynn with a pound fig outside his home on Back Road where he also sells fig trees. Photo: D. Mickey

Chester Lynn with a pound fig outside his home on Back Road where he also sells fig trees. Photo: D. Mickey

Editor’s note: The Ocracoke Fig Festival starts Friday (Aug. 12) and continues Saturday. Click here for the schedule of events.

For Ocracoke news, click here.

By David Mickey

Ocracoke and the White House have some things in common.

Both are in national parks, and now, thanks to Ocracoke native Chester Lynn, they will share something else–fig trees.

Lynn was preparing for this April’s Portsmouth Homecoming when he had an idea.

His friend Bob Vogel, the former superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore, always came to the homecoming.

Now as the regional director responsible for the National Mall and Memorial Parks in the District of Columbia, Vogel is responsible for the White House grounds.

Lynn decided to give him two fig trees.

“I like the White House,” Lynn said.  “I knew Bob Vogel. We became friends, and this was my chance.  I can do this.  It was a fun thing.”

Figs are not native to Ocracoke, but they have become an island tradition.

Lynn propagates fig tree varieties from local trees, and after the homecoming he carefully selected the two varieties most historically representative of Ocracoke.

Vogel agreed to take the trees back to the Capitol and also complete the necessary paperwork.

One of the trees was the pound fig known for its large size.  The other was a sugar fig, which, is the smallest fig and, according to Lynn, has been on the island for over 200 years.

A miniature drawing of figs by islander Manda Holden.

A miniature drawing of figs by islander Manda Holden.

“There are only a few sugar figs left on Ocracoke,” Lynn said.

As Lynn explains, figs were very important in the days when fruits, jellies and preserves were not easily available to island residents.

Fourteen varieties of figs are found on the island.

“Some fig trees on Ocracoke have been bred and done well so long here that they’re not anywhere else,” he said.

Sandy soil is why they grow so well on the island.

Old Ocracoke houses often had three fig tree varieties–the pound fig, sugar fig and brown turkey.

Chickens scratched under the trees and fertilized the soil.

Fresh clam shells piled around the trunks provided nutrients and helped anchor the trees in heavy winds.

The 82 acres that surround the White House are officially known as the President’s Park and date back to 1791.

The first president to move into the White House was John Adams but it was his successor, Thomas Jefferson, who took on the task of planting trees and landscaping President’s Park, a tradition that presidents and their families continue today.

Coincidentally, Jefferson grew figs and other fruit trees in his White House office.

It is unlikely that the two fig trees from Ocracoke Island will have the benefit of free-range chickens and fresh clam shells at their new White House home, but the Park Service will have other resources for their care.

The National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial on Aug. 25, assumed jurisdiction over the President’s Park in 1933 and four years later in 1937, Congress established the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that includes all of Ocracoke Island outside the village boundaries.

August means harvest time for those who love figs.

Residents compete with the birds to pick as many figs as they can for preserves, jam and Ocracoke’s own fig cake.

With luck, in a few years, future occupants of the White House will have that same opportunity to enjoy figs from Ocracoke.

As Lynn might say, “It’s a fun thing.”

For a WRAL Television interview with Chester Lynn talking about Ocracoke figs, click here: http://www.wral.com/news/local/video/15811605/

Fig Fest poster 2016