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Romancing the Fig: What One Fruit Can Tell Us About Love, Life, and Human Civilization

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, Wild Figs gives us an excuse to stop and consider the fruit that may have kick-started human evolution: the humble fig.

They say true love means growing together — or, as the Buddhist monk and poet Manhae wrote in the 1926 piece “Parting”:

Love isn’t only in the candle’s red flame or the fresh wine, it’s in the formlessness that mirrors each others’ minds through the distance.

If what they say is true, then there may be no more perfect lovers than the fig tree and the fig wasp.

The fig is a curious fruit. In fact, it’s not a fruit at all. Figs are actually “inflorescences,” or inverted flowers1. This is what gives the inside of a fig its signature striated look: each small, fleshy thread in the fig is a flower, carrying a seed.

"A fig is essentially an inside-out mulberry, an entire edible flower cluster hidden down inside its own stalk." Credit: Botanist in The Kitchen

Pollination is pretty straightforward for your average flower, but things get complicated for the fig tree’s flowers, encased as they are in a protective stem. This is where the fig wasp comes in.

There are roughly 900 species of fig, and roughly 900 species of fig wasp. Over the course of 80 million years, each species of fig tree has evolved alongside its own species of fig wasp2. Each fig relies on its wasp for pollination, and each wasp relies on its fig for reproduction. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the connection “has become so profound that neither organism can exist without the other.”3 Biologists call it “coevolution,” a process in which two species directly influence the evolution of one another.4 In human terms, we might call it “codependence.”

When a female fig wasp is ready to reproduce, she climbs into a fig through a small opening called an “ostiole.” Once inside, the fig wasp deposits her eggs. She also brings pollen from other figs, thereby fertilizing the fig.

But there’s a tiny tragedy built into the matter. See, the fig wasp may be small, but the ostiole is a tight squeeze. In the process of burrowing into the fig, the wasp loses its antennae and wings — meaning it’s trapped. Like the hero of a particularly dramatic romance novel, the wasp perishes for her love. The fig shows its own cruel devotion by digesting her body for nourishment.5

“Like the hero of a particularly dramatic romance novel, the wasp perishes for her love.”

What are we to make of this relationship? Is it an allegory for true love, or a gothic bit of doomed and dysfunctional romance?

In truth, it’s neither. We’re just projecting human ideas onto biological processes. However, we’re in good company doing so: for almost as long as civilization has existed, people have been eating figs and turning them into metaphors for just about everything.

Ficus, Credit: G.D. Ehret

The Fruit that started it all

Perhaps best known colloquially as a cookie filling, the fig is a much more fascinating plant than many of us give it credit for. Scientists call it a “keystone resource” because of the sheer number of animals — more than 1,200 — that rely on it for nutrients.6 That includes humans. The fig tree is not one for figging about.

According to ecologist Mike Shanahan, “The year-round presence of ripe figs would have helped sustain our early human ancestors. High-energy figs may have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains. There is also a theory that suggests our hands evolved as tools for assessing which figs are soft, and therefore sweet and rich in energy.”

The fig’s role in building human civilization may help explain its symbolic potency. It appears in religions throughout the world. The Buddha was meditating under a fig tree when he became enlightened.7 The fig tree is the third tree ever mentioned in the Bible, with only the “Tree of life” and the “Tree of the knowledge of good and evil” being named before it.

The ancient romans enshrined the connection between humanity and the fig in myth. The fabled founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were found as infants under a fig tree, where they were being nursed by a she-wolf.8 The Romans also associated the fig tree with Rumina, patron goddess of breastfeeding mothers, due to its milky sap.9

Painting of Romulus and Remus under the fig tree by Peter Paul Rubens. Source: Researchgate

The Most Fertile Fruit?

Given the fig’s prominent role in the generation of humanity as we know it, it’s no surprise that figs are often associated with sex and fertility.

For example, in ancient Greece, certain rituals involved beating men and women with the branches of fig trees to promote fertility.10 (Not exactly the most tantalizing ritual, but then again, some people are into that, and more power to them.) Legend has it that history’s most iconic sex symbol, Cleopatra, preferred figs over any other fruit.11 While American readers may be used to throwing rice at weddings, Moroccan custom dictates throwing figs and raisins to wish fruitfulness upon newlyweds.12

The Romans, too, used figs to wish fruitfulness upon one another — though in a slightly more crass way, at least by today’s standards. As a sign of blessing — and a means of warding off curses — ancient Romans would flash the “mano fico,” or “fig hand,” called such because it was thought to resemble female genitalia, which were associated with figs.13

The “mano fico.”

Be careful throwing the fig sign around indiscriminately today. You may mean well, but the sign is deeply offensive in Turkey and some other locales.14

To this day, many people consider the fig an aphrodisiac. Some believe the fruit’s rich amino acid content promotes sexual stamina, although the science behind aphrodisiacs isn’t exactly settled.15

That said, studies by Dr. Alan R. Hirsch have shown certain scents — especially lavender and pumpkin pie — can increase arousal. Hirsch writes that “anatomy bears out the link between smells and sex: the area of the brain through which we experience smells, the olfactory lobe, is part of the limbic system, the emotional brain, the area through which sexual thoughts and desires are derived.”16 If eating figs doesn’t get a person going, smelling them might be a more effective alternative. Or you could light a Wild Figs candle — it does contain musk, which has been shown to increase blood flow to all the right places.

“Each fig represents a different possibility: becoming a famous poet or brilliant professor, moving to Europe or Africa or South America, medaling in Olympic rowing...”

The Future Is Full of Figs

At one point in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, protagonist Esther faces a dizzying vision: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.”

To Esther’s eyes, each fig represents a different possibility: becoming a famous poet or brilliant professor, moving to Europe or Africa or South America, medaling in Olympic rowing, and so on. The sheer variety of choice is so daunting Esther fears she may “starve” because she can’t make up her mind.

Is it any wonder Plath chose figs to illustrate Esther’s multifaceted future? Could any other fruit possibly contain so much meaning?

From millennia-spanning tales of evolutionary love to the founding of ancient Rome and the beginning of Buddhism, the fig has played a starring role in some of history’s most stirring stories. Figs have been with us since the dawn of human civilization. They may have even been integral to enabling humans to evolve to become who we are today.

No doubt the future, too, will be full of figs.

—The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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