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A deciduous tree, forming in the south of Europe and in the East a short, rugged trunk 2 to 3 ft in diameter, and a low, spreading head of branches; in Britain it is mostly a shrub. Leaves alternate, three- or five-lobed, 4 to 8 in. or even more in length and width, heart-shaped at the base, varying much in the depth of the lobes, which themselves are blunt or rounded at the end, and usually scalloped into broad rounded teeth, both surfaces, but especially the upper one, rough to the touch, with short stiff hairs; stalk 1 to 4 in. long. Flowers produced on the inner surface of a roundish, pear-shaped receptacle, nearly closed at the top, which afterwards develops into the succulent sweet fruit we know as the fig. The leaves have a very characteristic odour.
Native of W. Asia, and the eastern Mediterranean region, cultivated in the south and west of Europe, even in Britain, from early times. The cultivation of the fig in this country for its fruits does not come within the province of this book. Except in the mild parts of the south and west, where its fruits ripen in the open air, it needs more or less the protection of glass, or at least of a south wall. In the open at Kew the fig gets to be a shrub 6 to 10 ft high, according to the mildness or otherwise of successive winters. The severest frosts cut it to the ground, whence strong young shoots spring up the following summer. At the present time (1971) there is no open-ground plant at Kew worthy of mention, but good specimens can be seen in St James’s Park, London. On the whole, unless wall protection can be given, the fig is not worth growing in our average climate except for its interest and associations.
The plants cultivated in gardens are exclusively females, which have the power, like the cucumber, to develop fruit without being fertilised. The fertilisation of the wild fig, through the agency of two generations yearly of an insect (Blastophaga), is one of the most remarkable instances known of the interrelation of insect and plant life for their mutual benefit. The Smyrna race, widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region for the production of dried figs, also depends on the fig-wasp for fertilisation. This is achieved by growing a certain number of so-called caprifigs (goat-figs) in each plantation, to serve as ‘nurseries’ for the winter brood of the wasp and as a source of pollen. Dried figs owe their nutty flavour to the fertile seeds they contain. For an account of the life-cycle of the fig-wasp and its role in pollination, see Maclean and Cook, A Textbook of Theoretical Botany, Vol. 2, pp. 1327-9.