Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees

A whole book about fig trees? That’s right! If you’re a voracious nonfiction reader like me, you’ll find freelance journalist Mike Shanahan’s history of fig trees unexpectedly fascinating. It opens with him atop a series of ladders in a national park in Borneo, reaching past a venomous snake to pick some figs. He did many such exciting things in his research towards a PhD in rainforest ecology, but that 1998 encounter was significantly more intrepid than his earliest experience with the genus: he remembers a potted weeping fig in the hallway of his childhood home.

From that little tree to the largest banyans, Ficus encompasses 750+ species and has had a major place in human culture for millennia. Fig trees turn up in Greek origin myths and are sacred to Hindus. Romulus and Remus were rescued from drowning in the Tiber by fig tree roots. The tree the Buddha sat under to meditate? A fig. The fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden? More likely a fig than an apple given the Middle Eastern climate and the fact that they then sew fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. (The confusion may have come about because in Latin malum means either “apple” or “evil”.)

Figs offer some biological surprises. For one thing, the plants have no apparent flowers. That’s because the flowers are internal: a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps. Strangler figs colonize a host tree, starting as a seed in the canopy and enveloping it in long tangled roots. Many tropical birds and mammals rely on figs, including monkeys and hornbills. Figs were, Shanahan writes, the “original superfood” for our primate ancestors.

The habitats where fig trees thrive face severe challenges, including drought, forest fires and poaching. However, history offers encouraging examples of how fig species can be key to tropical forest restoration. After a volcano erupted on Papua New Guinea in 1660, for example, the razed land was fairly quickly recolonized by Ficus species from seeds dropped by birds and bats – a prerequisite for wildlife returning. Similarly, fig trees were all that remained of the forest on Krakatoa after its famous volcanic eruption in 1883.

Building on this precedent, the Forest Restoration Research Unit, based in Thailand, now uses fig species to kickstart the restitution of tropical landscapes; one in every five of their plantings is a fig. Likewise, figs can be used to restore post-mining landscapes and lock up carbon. Researchers are looking into using drones to collect and deposit the seeds.

I’d never realized how often figs show up in the historical record, or how dependent on them we and other creatures have been. “Look after fig trees and they will look after you. It’s a lesson we have all but forgotten, but one we could learn again,” Shanahan concludes. Have a look at the bibliography and you’ll see just how much information is synthesized into this short, engaging book. It’s another gorgeous design from Unbound, too: the colorful cover was what first attracted me, and the author’s black-and-white pointillist illustrations adorn the text.

Nowadays I tend to think of figs as an exotic, luxury food. Every year we add some dried figs to our Christmas cake, creating caramel bursts of crunchy seeds. When my husband and I lived in Reading, we briefly had a LandShare arrangement to look after an established garden. Hidden behind a suburban fence, it was a secret paradise overflowing with fruit: plum, greengage and apple trees plus a fruit cage containing berries, currants, and – in one corner – a small fig. I remember one glorious late summer when we were inundated with more ripe figs than I’d ever seen before. We would heat them in the oven and serve them split open and oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey. Our very own taste of Eden.

My rating:

 


Ladders to Heaven was first published by Unbound in 2016 and releases in paperback today, September 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

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24 thoughts on “Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees

  1. This sounds fascinating. I pass a fig tree on a regular walk which is laden with fruit this year, some of which over hang its owner’s garden wall. It’s taken a great deal of willpower not to pick one. Have you read Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow? Worth a look if you’ve not had enough of fruit.

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    1. Ah yes, I’d forgotten about that book! I started it in Tuscany a few years ago — it was my first trip to Italy and it was very atmospheric reading. Once back in England it was more of a chore to finish.

      Every year I eye up the neighbours’ plums (er, literally! that’s not a euphemism), but, alas, they leave them on the tree to rot.

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  2. We lived in a house for years that had a huge fig tree. Every summer the fruit would invariably appear when we were on holiday. It drove me crazy until a good friend (who is Greek and knows her way around a fig!) advised me to pick them a little early and place them inside on fig leaves. The leaves would continue the ripening process – great tip!
    My other fig story (is it weird that I Ave fig stories?) relates to a strangler fig. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s I did a forestry subject that included plant identification. We would walk around campus with the lecturer pointing out different species, one of which was a small strangler fig atop a brick wall, its roots fanning out across the wall. A few years ago I returned to study at Melbourne Uni. Walking across campus one day I remembered the strangler fig and went in search of it. Nearly 25 years later, it was still there – not much bigger but struggling on!

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  3. My father has been trying to grow a fig tree in red Virginia clay for as long as I can remember, almost as long as I’ve been alive. He built a wee wall for it, but I don’t think the wall was actually tall enough, so nothing much happened. When he came to visit me at the uni, the sight of a luxuriously-growthed fig tree spreading across the wall of one of the back buildings depressed him deeply.

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    1. Aww. I am a terrible gardener but have often benefited from others’ hard work by tending to the mature plants at the places I move into.

      I noticed a small fig tree growing in a barrel outside church the other week. It seems an appropriate place for it somehow, not least because of the Italianate architecture.

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  4. “a fig is not technically a fruit but a hollow ball lined with tiny flowers that must be pollinated by two-millimeter-long fig-wasps” — That is so interesting!
    Also, I just have to say that you would make a wonderful food writer. Your “caramel bursts of crunchy seeds” and “oozing with goat’s cheese and runny honey” have me drooling. 🙂

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    1. It’s an absorbing little book; I don’t think you’d have to have much prior interest in the subject to enjoy it. It only occurred to me after I’d finished it to recall my own experiences of eating figs!

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  5. I like figs, dried and fresh, but only rarely eat them, although I have been trying to increase the amount of dried fruit that I eat in general (and decrease other sweets – I have a sweet tooth for sure). This book made me think of a story from the Vinyl Cafe series about a fig tree; it was the first Stuart Maclean story I’ve heard/read (he’s like Garisson Keillor in some ways) which seems to be available via podcast if you’re curious: https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2660637065

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    1. Dried apricots used to be one of my staple weekday snacks. Beware, though — dried fruit is as sugary as lots of other things you’d consider less healthy, and clings to the teeth. So, rinsing afterwards is important 🙂

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      1. Yes, I agree that it’s easy to overdo that kind of thing, well, anything really. We can’t always get fresh fruit – that would be better all around. But I do need to take a break from my chocolate, on occasion. 🙂

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    2. Not to be the dental police here 😉 It’s just that my husband had to have a lot of work done earlier in the year and the dentist mentioned not letting dried fruit, or fresh fruit (acidic), stick around on your teeth.

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