Figs vs. Dates
Among all fruits, there are two that stand out conspicuously for high food value. They are the date and the fig. Weight for weight, dried figs are more nourishing than bread. A pound and a half yields four-fifths of the nourishment required daily by a grown man. Additionally, a half pound of dates with a half pint of milk makes a most satisfying meal.
The date is really a berry, and the stone inside, unlike the stone of a plum, which is merely a hard seed-case, is the seed itself. The importance of the date-palm is seen by the many references to it in ancient literature, for example:
"The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree," sang the Psalmist, using this tree as an emblem of integrity and fruitfulness. "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. They shall be fat and flourishing."
There was even a time in history when it was popular to use an expression:
"Palmy" (to refer to anything considered in a prosperous condition).
Even the Egyptian architects, who built the stately temples of Luxor and Karnak could find nothing finer to copy for their great pillars than the upright date-palm with its crown of spreading leaves.
A Little Palm Knowledge
When the seed of the date-palm germinates, the reserve of food stored up in it is converted into sugar by a ferment call cytase, produced by the first green leaves of the plant. Gradually, the plant forms fresh cells and increases in height, throwing out leaves.
However, as the stem grows, the lower leaves die so that the tree always shows a crown of leaves on top, with only the remains of the former leaves below.
It is these that give the stem of the palm such a rough appearance. Indeed, the stem may be said to be made up largely of the remains of leaves.
When young, the leaves are twisted together and matted up with loose fibers, which open as the leaf expands. Then, the leaves split down to the main stalk along the folds, and a fully grown leaf, although large, offers very little resistance to the wind, so that the tree is able to stand firm in the fiercest storm.
The average date-palm grown sixty or seventy feet high, but many reach eighty feet. In the ordinary way, the plant is not propagated by seed, but by suckers that spring out of the base of the tree.
The palm begins bearing fruit when seven years old, and will go on bearing for an astonishing two hundred years. A single tree gives from eight to ten bunches a season.
So valuable are the trees in North Africa, that they have passed as wealth from father to son, and even as a dowry of a daughter for generations. A man's social position was once largely reckoned according to the number of date-palms he owned.
The date stones were once ground up and formed a nourishing food for camels, while the fibrous parts of the plant were made into ropes, baskets, and mats. Much of the cordage used by ships on the Sea see were once made from the fibrous bark of the date palm.
Appreciation Of Dates
To be fully appreciated, the dates should be gathered ripe and eaten immediately, but for export or, for preserving, they are laid out on mats and dried in the sun to this day in many parts of the world where they grow.
The large amount of sugar prevents them from fermenting under the process.
Dates are also made into jam with sugar, but for this, they are gathered beforea they are fully ripe.
Amazing Secret About Dates
The most remarkable thing about the date palm is that every tree is usually fertilized by hand. The male and female flowers grow on different trees, and though a certain amount of pollen might be blown by the wind from the male flowers, and somehow find a lodging in the female flowers -- this would be too uncertain a process where the food supply of millions of people is involved.
From time immemorial, therefore, it has been the practice for the cultivator to collect flowers from the male tree and, climbing to the top of the female tree, to arrange the male flowers above the blossom there, so that the pollen may fall into the female flowers. Without this pollination by hand, the date palm will seldom bear fruit.
This brings me to a fascinating true Middle Eastern story.
A Civil War In Persia
The story goes, that once during a civil war in old time Persia, one side destroyed all the male palms to deprive the other side of food.
The people on that side saved the situation by collecting and storing pollen, so that when times became quieter, they were able to fertilize the female blossoms once more.
As a result of that historical event -- In the case the male flowers should fail, and there should be no pollen to fertilize the female palms, which would mean starvation over wide areas, the natives practiced a policy to preserve a supply from one year to the other.
Reproduction of Date Palms
The Story Of The Fig
The fig is even more interesting than the date. Its life-story has become fully known only during the last century, thanks to the studies of American scientists and fruit growers when introducing the plant into the state of California.
The fig is a native of the Persian Gulf countries, and is cultivated all along the Mediterranean shore, as well as in India, Australia, and California. The tree grows from fifteen to thirty feet high.
It is a relative of the mulberry, the banyan tree, and the India rubber tree. When a ripe fig is gathered, a sticky milky substances adheres to the fingers, and this is not unlike the milky fluid of the rubber tree that hardens into rubber.
The Romantic and Mysterious Story of the Smyrna Fig
The story of the Smyrna fig, the variety which produces the fine, rich, sweet fruit that we know so well in its dried form, is a wonderful romance. In ancient times, it was known that figs came into maturity and ripened properly only when the wild variety, called the Caprifig, was grown in the same plantation as the cultivated figs.
However, why this should be, was a mystery and so it remained until the end of the 1800s. Even the Romans knew and wondered of this mystery. One of their naturalists, Pliny, suggested that an invisible insect had something to do with it.
Figs are grown in gardens, and there are some people who think their trees produce fruit, but no flowers. As a matter of fact, these fig trees produce flowers, but no fruits. The pear-shaped objects that form on the tree, and grow larger and larger, are not fruits at all, but flower clusters (inflorescences), and the fig blossom is a very interesting botanical specimen.
In form, it is constructed on the same principle as the Daisy, the Dandelion, and the sunflower. These have hundreds of tiny florets arranged around a center, radiating to form a disk.
However, in the fig blossom, the small flowers are drawn together to form a pear-shaped bag, with the flowers inside.
That is the fig, as we see it grow, and as in some places these flowers are never pollinated, the fruit never forms, and the flower-head remains a flower-head, although, if eaten when freshly gathered in the fall, it is delicious.
(It should be noted that the figs which grow in the Southern states do not form seeds and are not good dried).
Now, if you look closely, In the end opposite the stalk, which holds the fig to the tree is a little hole, and this is the door into the flower-head.
In the orchards of Turkey, the cultivators plant with the Smyrna fig, the Caprifig tree, which produces pollen, but not good fruit. There man cut off the staminate blossoms of the wild fig and hang them in trees of the cultivated variety, so that the cultivated blossoms may be pollinated and produce rich fruit.
Years ago, when the Smyrna fig trees were planted in California, the figs dropped off, so the growers sent to Turkey for knowledge of the cultivation practices there.
Soon they discovered the curious fact about the need of growing Caprifigs in the same orchards, and they did so -- with very disappointing results.
One planter, however, took the pollen from a few Smyrna fig blossoms, and those figs matured and became sweet fruits. The next year he blew the Caprifig pollen into many Smyrna figs with a glass tube, and one hundred and fifty of them matured and ripened.
The scientists were now on the track of this success, and they found that the tiny insect referred to by ancient naturalist Pliny, was indeed a wasp, that visited both the Caprifig and the Smyrna fig blossoms, and as this insect evidently did the pollinating the mystery of ages was finally solved.
The Back Story of the Mystery
The solution of a mystery that puzzled men for centuries is this -- The Caprifig has three crops --- in spring, summer, and autumn. The autumn crop remains on the tree through the winter. The little fig-wasp spends the winter in the autumn Caprifigs, and then, having exhausted the food in them, emerges in the spring and goes into the spring Caprifigs to lay its eggs in them.
Then the wasp dies, but the eggs hatch out into new wasps, which live in the spring Caprifigs till they, too, exhaust the food supply, and come out in search of more. When they emerge, they are covered with pollen from the spring Caprifigs.
Deceived by the blossoms of the edible fig (the Symrna fig), the wasps enter them to find a nesting place. Finding their mistake, they come out again, but not before they have shaken off their pollen and fertilized the blossom.
They now fly about till the Summer Caprifigs are on the trees, and inside these they lay their eggs.
By autumn, the new wasps hatch out, leave the summer Caprifigs after exhausting the food supply, and enter the autumn Caprifigs, where they winter, and the whole story is repeated once more, year-after-year.
The Wasps That Were World Travelers
After many unsuccessful attempts to duplicate what the wasps did on a grand scale to have a viable fig crop in the United States, the wasps were carried across the Atlantic ocean and to the California fig growers. Without them, California would have never had a commercial fig operation.