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Bible Plants

Common Fig

Ficus carica. Near Jerash, Jordan. February 1998.

The common fig, Ficus carica, is the most widely planted fruit tree in Bible lands. The tree lives up to two hundred years so is often planted with olive trees, which are also long lived. It is a much branched tree with branches arising low on the trunk. All parts of the tree contain a white, milky sap which can cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Leaves are about the size of a hand and have three main lobes and a hairy undersurface.

The fig is the last tree to produce leaves in the spring. While the leaves of the almonds and other deciduous trees are fully developed, the fig is just beginning to leaf‑out. Jesus refers to this in Mark 13:28‑31 as the beginning of summer, a verse often used to interpret Bible prophecies.

Why doesn't Jesus ask his disciples to look for the flowers of the fig? Because they are never seen by the casual observer! The flowers of the fig are so tiny that even the farmers who grow the figs have never seen them.

The uncolored and unisexual flowers are contained in a specialized, fleshy structure known as a synconium or fig. Wild fig trees, known as caprifigs, have many female flowers and few male ones. The cultivated fig tree has only female flowers. The pollination process is one of the wonders of nature. A minute wasp, barely discernible with the naked eye, deposits its eggs in the flowers of the caprifig and turns these flowers into galls. The same process takes place in the sycomore fig; by oiling or cutting the developing fig, the wasp is not able to lay the eggs (see discussion under sycomore fig). The female wasps which develop from the galls are fertilized by the males and leave through a small opening at the top of the fig. On the way out, the wasps must pass the male flowers and thus be dusted with pollen. They then carry pollen to the female flower to effect fertilization. Because their egg depositing structures of the wasps are too short they cannot deposit eggs in the ovaries of the cultivated fig; while in the wild fig the ovaries are within reach and therefore are turned into galls yielding inedible fruits. Fruit production in the fig is thus totally dependent upon the wasp as a carrier of the pollen from the male figs. Technically, the fruit is not a true fruit but rather a multiple fruit as each of the tiny fig flowers develops into a separate fruit and these hundreds of tiny fruits together produce the fig.If the figs are not pollinated, they turn brown, and fall from the tree. These are referred to in Isaiah 34:4. Modern varieties of fig trees can produce delicious fruit independent of wasp pollination.The chief use of the fig is for its fruit as we read in the divine commentary on trees in Judges 9 although it is also highly valued for its shade and, in the case of Hezekiah, was used medicinally as a poultice.

A fig tree may produce several crops in one year. There are many different varieties of figs‑some with black fruits, some green, some red. Because the fig contains a high concentration of sugar, the fruits can be dried and stored for later use, a practice referred to several places in the Scriptures (eg, I Samuel 25:18 and 3:11‑12). The high sugar content may also explain the use of the fig as a poultice as in the case of Hezekiah's boil.The fig is linked with the vine in more than 2 references and is one of the "five species" of the land (Deuteronomy 8:8). Blessing for Israel is often symbolized by the prosperity of the grape and the fig together (eg, I Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4, Zechariah 3:1). Because of this, it is not surprising that the enemy of God's people should promise exactly the same thing, abundance of grapes and figs (II Kings 18:31).

Jeremiah provides us with another commentary on the fig. The setting and timing are significant. God had spoken through Jeremiah to the people to tell them to submit to Nebuchednezzar. If they did, they would be blessed; if not, disaster would come upon them. Two baskets of figs are set in front of the temple to signify two groups of Jews. Those who, in compliance with the word of the Lord to Jeremiah, had submitted to the king of Babylon are regarded as good and would be planted in the land. "They will be my people and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart" (Jeremiah 24:7).

Ficus carica. Near Um Qais, Jordan. Ficus carica. Fig. Moraceae Ficus carica. Flowers. Ostiole at top of synconium. Ficus carica. Fig. Young fruits. Moraceae Ficus carica. Fruits. Moraceae