When California farmers of the late 1870s decided they wanted to launch a commercial fig industry that could compete with that of Turkey, they sent collectors to explore the orchards of the Eurasian nation. These fruit hunters eventually isolated what they deemed the very best of Turkey’s many figs: the green sari lop, which grew near Smyrna. They brought back thousands of branch cuttings, which farmers planted in the ground, and the Turkish fig twigs quickly grew into Fresno County orchards.
The sari lop would become California’s star fig. Renamed the Calimyrna in the early 1900s, it now grows across several thousand acres of the state. Unlike most other important commercial figs, however, the Calimyrna requires a complicated pollination process involving male fig trees, a wasp endemic to the Old World and manual farmer assistance to bring its fruits to maturity. Because of this—and in spite of the Calimyrna’s high fruit quality and superior nutty flavor when dried—its days may be numbered as fruit breeders work to replace it. Funded by government agriculture programs, breeders have been working for years to building a better fig, one of equal quality but which fruits without pollination.
In fact, Jim Doyle, an accomplished fruit breeder in Roseville, might already have created it. In partnership with UC Davis, Doyle fathered (no, not literally) the Sierra fig a decade ago. Amber fleshed and patented in 2005, the Sierra fig now grows across 400 acres of the state and is almost an exact duplicate of the Calimyrna. According to two sources, wholesale vendors of Calimyrna figs are even beginning to blend Sierra figs into their Calimyrna dried-fruit bins without telling customers—shifty business as the industry swaps the old fig for the new. The Davis Food Co-op sells Calimyrna figs—or do they really?
But if the fig’s the same, then the name’s just a name. Even the Calimyrna, following a century of stardom, only stole the show from Smyrna’s forgotten sari lop.