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Not-So-Still Life With Figs: Legendary fruit thrives in the East Bay

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FOR THE BIRDS Fig abundance is just fine with starlings, the trashy relatives of the bird kingdom, as they start another round of Starling Wars.



“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree / And no one shall make them afraid.” —George Washington quoting the Bible in his farewell address, made famous again in Hamilton.

Like many in the East Bay, I have a fig tree, which I observe every day at my desk as I sit and write. Figs flourish in our mostly Mediterranean climate, with Mission, Brown Turkey and Black Jack varieties doing especially well. Mine is a Brown Turkey, something I researched when I moved in. I had never lived with a fig tree before.

Figs have a very precise seasonal cycle. Right now, the tree is in full leaf, and figs are developing fast, popping up all over the tree. In August, many will be ripe, and ready to pick. In fact, so many that they initiate the dreaded “zucchini syndrome” with the neighbors:

“Do you want some figs?”

“We haven’t used up what you gave us last time.” 

“Oh. Let me know?”

Their abundance is just fine with the starlings, indeed it starts another round of Starling Wars. Starlings, by the way, are not even native to North America. The story goes that a misguided Shakespeare enthusiast wanted to introduce every bird listed in the Bard’s works to North America, so he loosed about 100 European starlings into New York’s Central Park. This was not a good idea. There are now more than 200 million of them, all of them noisy, pushy and constantly fighting with each other—a really big nuisance.

Starlings are, in fact, the trashy relatives of the bird kingdom. I am amazed not to see tiny little cigarette butts and beer cans under the tree after each flock attempts to peck holes in every fig on it. If birds watched TV, starlings would definitely have their own reality show.

Do not get me started about the squirrels.

Fortunately, there are more than enough figs to go around, even if that requires the occasional shout, or squirt with the hose. So, what to do with them, other than badger the neighbors to take some? I like to scoop out the pulpy centers and add them to my morning oatmeal. Figs are high in iron, potassium, calcium, fiber and Vitamin B6. They’re also a natural source of nutrition-industry buzzword “prebiotics,” aiding gut health and potentially lowering blood sugar.

They’re also very versatile for those who enjoy cooking. Try a simple recipe for fig jam from Raquel Smith on foodal.com, foodal.com/recipes/jams-and-jellies/easy-fig-jam/, longtime Green’s chef Deborah Madison’s yummy tart, listed on finecooking.com, www.finecooking.com/recipe/fresh-fig-tart-with-orange-flower-custard or Amanda Biddle’s tasty summer/fall salad from stripedspatula.com, stripedspatula.com/fig-salad/.

Many cultures also use fig leaves as wraps, such as salmon roasted in fig leaves, or distill them into a syrup, which can be used in cocktails.

For those of us who don’t have a tree, or neighbors eager to share from theirs, figs are widely available at farmers’ markets during the season. For those who have a patch of ground that gets full sun, consider planting one. The dwarf varieties even do well in tubs and containers. Check with a local nursery for advice on the best choice for local weather and climate conditions.

Last year, we—including the starlings—were still enjoying figs in early December. But the tree finally went dormant. Deciduous fig trees drop all their large, lobed leaves, creating a big ol’ cardio opportunity known as “raking.” It’s odd to look out the window and see all the way to the street, as only the outline of the tree remains. In its own way, it is a beautiful sight.

Yet soon, very soon, what seems like almost too soon, tiny buds of incipient new leaves begin to emerge. When I observed this during my first winter here, I was worried. What if we get really cold weather? Is this happening because I hired Dan the Tree Dude to trim it? Am I watering too much, or not enough?

The tree, of course, knew what it was doing, and welcomed Dan’s expert attention. The leaves developed fast, but not too fast, and eventually the tree became fully leafed again, but kicked back until spring to produce figlets. And so the cycle began all over again, including the starlings. Right now, several are infuriating me by pecking holes in figs that are not even ripe yet, for Pete’s sake!

We muddle on together. A hummingbird sips from the orange flowers of the pomegranate tree next to the fig, and tiny finches eat aphids from the camellias right in front of the window. Their world, which includes figs and starlings, is also my world. How did I get so lucky?