Fig Leaf to the Rescue

According to Joseph Miller (1722), “the Fig-tree seldom grows to be a tree of any bigness in our parts, being clothed with Large leaves bigger than Vine-Leaves, full of high veins, and divided for the most part into five blunt-pointed segments, yielding a thin milky Juice when broken. It beareth no visible flowers, and they are therefore supposed to be hidden in the Fruit, which it produces twice a year….These figs are cooling and moistening, good for all Coughs, Shortness of Breath, and Diseases of the Breast, as also for the Stone and Gravel; and useful to drive out the Small-Pox and Measles.”

Plate 125, a handsome rendition of The Fig Tree, from Blackwell’s Curious Herbal. Accompanying text is a nearly direct copy of Miller’s treatment in Botanicum Officinale, 1722.

Native to the Mediterranean, the common fig (Ficus carica) is a great plant for Southern California gardens, so pre-adapted as to appear spontaneously in verges. In fact, this ruderal (thriving in edges and waste areas) plant might be considered invasive at certain levels. Curiously, wild forms (such as the one photographed below) can produce quite respectable “fruit”, not as delicious as ‘Violette de Bordeaux’ or ‘Paraiso’ perhaps, but surprisingly good for random seedlings. We qualify the word fruit since most readers will know that figs are short invaginated stems, producing their flowers tucked inside the tips, a special structure botanists call a synconium.

Immature fig
Mature fig, showing the small seed, each of which is really the one-seeded fruit of a small flower “hidden in the Fruit” as we learn from Miller
The same fruit as in the previous photo, before I took a blade to it….

Though not to everyone’s liking, Figs are useful. They carry on with little intervention and hardly any irrigation, turning out regular crops of fruit. The shrubs (small trees) are easily managed, taking pruning and shaping quite well. I don’t believe many people ever used them medicinally, and certainly would recommend a measles vaccination rather than some fig treatment.

But their leaves have proven of great and particular use. When work began on the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden at The Huntington, we were clear to contractors that walkways should be detailed with leaf impressions, to bring natural forms to normally sterile concrete surfaces. We were met with the surprising feedback that the only imprints contractors could guarantee would be made using a selection of manufactured dies for impressing patterns in the paving. There is no chance a botanical garden would use fake leaf patterns in that way, so we agreed to provide the leaves, position them, and sign-off on any requirement for perfect results.

That was a learning exercise. We made trials, discovering that not all leaves work well for making such impressions, realizing quickly that large leaves with strong venation and the quality of laying quite nicely flat were the better subjects. This meant, oddly, that soft leaves often made better impressions than stiff leaves (like Magnolia grandiflora). And we found that leaves with hairy surfaces yielded nice contrasting textures, as opposed to glabrous (having no surface hairs) samples. Fig leaves proved to be dynamite for concrete impressions, yielding patterns that show throughout the walks.

Apollo Belvedere at the west entry to The Huntington Library, created by Le Sueur around 1648
Chaste, but itchy

But, of course, people long ago found fig leaves useful as modesty panels, the iconic provenance reaching back to Greek culture and to Adam and Eve, who “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” As a badge of modesty, the fig leaf ornaments the naked, and somehow clings to vital parts with no strings or sashes. With all the scurfy hairs on the lower surface, the hairs that make for great texture in concrete but also dusty doings when picking fruit, the whole idea of fig leaves clasping the groin makes me itch.

For other, more salacious symbolism, search for a poem, “Figs”, by D. H. Lawrence, or look up “making the fig” on the internet.

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