Figs: Food for Vegans?

The short answer is no, figs are not a food that vegans or vegetarians can eat. The longer answer to that question is yes and therein lies the baffling history of figs.

If a female burrow into a female fig, she cannot lay her eggs and dies of starvation. However, she does bring pollen into the internal flowers of the fig, pollinating it. So yes, there is at least one dead wasp inside the figs that we like to eat. This applies to southern figs. Nearly all figs cultivated in the USA come from California, meaning southern figs.

In northern climes though, the fig tree is self-pollinating and therefore there are no wasps involved, making northern fig trees a fine choice for vegans or vegetarians. These figs though seldom make it to a market.

The health benefits of figs are significant:

  • Figs are high in natural sugars, minerals and soluble fiber.
  • Figs are rich in minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper and are a good source of antioxidant vitamins A and K that contribute to good health.
  • It is wise not to over-indulge in them as they can influence one’s bowels. Dried figs, especially, can provide a concentrated dose of fiber, making it a natural remedy for constipation.

Because of their backwards, inside-out nature, figs cannot rely on normal methods, like wind or bees, for pollination.

  • Figs are actually inverted flowers.
  • Yes, and there are fig wasps, about 900 different fig wasps depending on the fig.
  • Nearly every species of fig tree is pollinated by its own distinct species of fig wasp.
  • Figs belong to the flowering mulberry family

The female wasp crawls inside through a hole so narrow that she loses her wings in the process and becomes trapped. If the fig is a male, she lays her eggs inside. These hatch into larvae that burrow out, turn into wasps, and fly off, carrying fig pollen with them.

Another type of tree, known as a caprifig, produces inedible figs that house the fig wasp young. It has short-styled female flowers that are adapted to the egg-laying habits of the fig wasp and contains male flowers near the apex. Pollen from the caprifigs is carried by the fig wasps to pollinate both the edible and inedible figs. All edible figs have male and female flowers, but only Caprifig is a male tree, according to the University of Georgia. Caprifig has inedible fruit and is used exclusively to pollinate other edible figs, while female trees produce edible fruit. For northern climates it is important to select a variety that can succeed with colder winters, such as Brown Turkey, Chicago, or Celeste. You are looking specifically self-pollinating cultivars.

Interesting fig facts:

  • Fig trees are keystone species in many rainforests, producing fruit year- round that are important food sources for thousands of animal species from bats to monkeys to birds.
  • Figs have played prominent roles in every major modern religion, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
  • Some fig species are trees, others are vines, shrubs, and even epiphytes.

As you can see sometimes straightforward questions don’t come with straightforward answers, therein lies the wonder of the fig!