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Ancient Figs Through History
The fig tree, ‘Ficus carica,’ possibly originated in Northern Asia according to archeological fossil records. Spanish missionaries brought it to the United States in 1520. Historical Sumerian tablets record the use and consumption of figs in 2500 BC.
In Greek mythology, the fig figures prominently as a gift of Demeter to Dionysus and as having received the blessing and sanctity of the Greek Gods. Plato documented that Greek athletes at Olympia were fed diets of figs to increase their running speed and overall strength. The figs contained up to 50% concentration of sugar which was virtually like feeding the athlete a candy bar.
The most famous Biblical reference to figs is that, in which Jesus cursed a fig tree for not producing any fruit for him as he passed by, a curse that killed the fig tree, Matt 21:18
The Jewish King, Hezekiah, was cured of a life-threatening plague by applying figs to the infected spot. 2 Kings 20 The Apostle, James, brother of Jesus, used the metaphor of the fig tree to describe the appropriate behavior that he expected to follow from Christian living. James 3:12
Fig leaves were used in the early church to hide the genitalia of nude, marble sculptures that adorned religious buildings. Fig trees were also used in ancient history as shade trees and to chop and use as quick start firewood.
Cooked figs were used as sweeteners in ancient times and this practice is still used in many third world countries in Asia Minor. The figs contain over 50% sugar. Hybrid figs contain many hollow, tiny seeds on the interior of the fruit, similar in taste as those found in blueberries and strawberries. A fig fruit has a round tiny opening at the base of the fig called an ‘eye.’ A tiny wasp flies into the interior of the fig and pollinates the tiny flowers lining the interior walls of the fig. These tiny seed are not generally digested by the stomach and offer a great laxative effect to the elderly sedentary citizens. American hybrid figs do not require or receive pollination to be transformed into edible fruit.
Fig trees in Europe can grow to a tremendous height of 100 feet, but the fruit is very difficult to harvest when the tree grows taller than 10 feet.
In harvesting the figs, it is important to pick the fruit from the tree, when it is completely mature–usually when it sags, droops, and changes color. If the figs are taken from the tree prematurely, the sweetness declines, but more importantly, if the figs are removed in the juvenile developing state, a white milky fluid exudes from the stem, which is transferred to a person’s hands and then eyes or mouth, the fluid is very irritating and should be washed away as quickly as possible.
One of the most famous figs in the United States is the “Black Mission” fig tree, which was named after the California, Franciscan mission that dates back to 1770, when it was planted there and cultivated on a commercial scale.
Perhaps the most famous product of figs is the fig newton that uses dried figs placed between curved, sweet wafers and distributed by Nabisco. In Europe, figs are gathered from commercial fig tree orchards where they are sized, graded, and packed to sell as fresh fruit at local markets. Figs are easily dried after harvesting from the trees, and various brands are popularly sold throughout the world, because of their extended shelf life in the United States, California is the largest producer of figs and most of them are marketed as dried figs. In the South figs are boiled in sugar liquid, sometimes adding strawberries and the resulting fig preserves are eaten during the fall and winter months as fig preserves on hot buttered biscuits. The trees grow into picturesque specimens in many landscapes. The trunks are often whitewashed when young in order to keep the sun from scalding the tender bark. The roots are vigorous growers and will grow far away from the canopy; however, trimming these roots does not damage the tree.
Fig trees grown in full sun have soft wood that break easily. The trees easily grow to 100 feet in Europe but usually less than 30 feet in the United States. Fertilizing fig trees on most soils is unnecessary and unwise, because nitrogen fertilizer tends to promote aggressive branch growth and will reduce the size of the crop. If too much nitrogen is applied, the fruit does not mature properly and the fruit has an off taste.
The first crop of figs that matures in the spring is called the “breba” crop and the next and tastiest crop matures in the fall. Figs are harvested from the trees from June till October, although some new cultivars will be ready for eating in April. The shelf life for freshly picked figs is short and fig generally last only about three days in refrigeration. A fig should not be picked from a tree, if it is over ripe or mushy, since it will begin souring from fermentation. At this point figs will lose their roundness and begin to collapse inward. When a fig is harvested from a tree, it should be soft to the touch and a very firm fig will not ripen properly, if it is picked at this immature stage.
The beautiful leaves of the fig tree are used to make an odd scented perfume with the aroma of wood or musk. The white, milky latex from the tree can be used as a meat tenderizer or in making cheese, if the latex is dried and powdered. Figs can be frozen whole or sliced in plastic bags or jars and expected to last satisfactorily for one year. Dried figs can be soaked in warm water to restore their shape and softness. Fruit of figs is high in iron, calcium, potassium, and fiber, and they are used as a diuretic and a laxative.
Figs contain protein digesting enzymes and can be used as a meat tenderizer and a taste enhancer. Dried figs are often used to substitute for recipes calling for dried apricots, dates, or prunes.
Fig trees are considered to be about as cold hardy as citrus; however, recent hybrid cultivars show that fig trees can survive temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit for limited periods of time, and if the tree freezes to the ground, the new shoots will sprout in the spring to rapidly renew the fig tree.