Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Phil is a fig, but he's our fig


I am a suggestible person. For example, about six years ago, I heard a sermon about a fig tree. There's a parable that talks about one that won't produce any fruit. The question is whether it should be torn up by the roots or given another chance with lots of horticultural attention. I think the parable contains one of the few scriptural references to manure.

It inspired me to search out a fig tree at a Montreal nursery to see if I could get the thing to produce a fig or two.

Now, fresh figs aren't to everyone's taste. Even fans like me would have to admit that the flavor is subtle. Bland to non-believers. And, as the parable suggests, figs take a lot of attention - pruning, watering, fertilizing - to get any fruit.

They're showy trees with huge leaves (Adam and Eve didn't grab for a fig leaf in the Garden for nothing) and they grow with mad energy as soon as the days grow longer in the spring.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges is keeping both their roots and branches in check. Understandably enough, I suppose, fig trees would like to get some size before they start producing fruit. The old Victorian gardening experts treated them like unruly children needing to be tamed.

They said your fig trees shouldn't be allowed any more roots than it takes to fill a doctor's medical bag. And you're constantly pinching off new leaves and branchlets. Even with draconian pruning, they're very big indoor plants.

They suck in enough water to quench the thirst of a regiment marching double-time through the desert and you have to fertilize them every week and a half. They are needy house guests. And regrettably, even with all that effort I can't get the thing to produce more than two or three fresh figs each year.

I'll admit, I've gotten kind of sick of 'Phil' (as the rambunctious little tree came to be known in our house) and decided to put it out in the garden this spring. Figs are semi-tropical plants but I deny vigorously that this is fig tree euthanasia -- a glorious summer followed by certain death in our Zone 4, winter deep-freeze. In fact, many Lebanese and Italian families in Montreal keep a garden fig tree going year after year.

Mind you, it takes some serious work in the fall to get them through the coldest months. You're supposed to prune them back, dig them up and lay them to rest in a trench under a foot or two of soil. Reverse the process in the spring.

Even outdoors, they're needy companions.

In this life, you seem to gather up certain things -- often on a whim -- that end up with you far longer than you ever expected. Spouses and kids, you expect (and hope for) a lifetime with them. But houseplants?

With a shudder at my comparatively pathetic life expectancy, I read recently that a certain prince of the church, Cardinal Pole, brought a White Marseilles fig tree to the gardens of Lambeth Palace in London in 1525. It's still growing where he planted it.

Like parents who buy their kids a tiny pet turtle or a talking parrot that surprises everyone when it actually lives out its natural 80-year lifespan, Phil the fig tree has become a leafy, under-productive, potentially inter-generational constant in our family.

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