Go fig yourself

Know thy neighbor.

Know thy neighbor.

The fig is a botanical oddity. When a cherry or apple tree is exploding in springtime blossoms, a fig tree is not. Rather, it keeps a private and reclusive presence in the orchard. And of cheery colors, fragrant nectar and spent petals cascading in the wind, the fig tree produces none. Instead, its fruits themselves are the flowers—inverted, modest devices of sexuality, which first appear in February as hard green nubs.

Those little figs, it turns out, represent the first of two annual fig crops—and they’re now beginning to ripen. This first flush of fruit is called the breba crop and is generally a small one compared to the second, which starts in August and lasts two months or more. The breba, though, lasts just two to three weeks and may consist of only a handful of fruits per tree.

Not so, however, with the king fig. This green-skinned variety produces a whopper of a breba, one whose abundant fruits will bury the sidewalk if they aren’t harvested. The king fig is outstanding, by most opinions, with raspberry-red flesh that melts in the mouth like jam.

The variety’s origins can be traced back to a tree near Madeira, Portugal, in the 1930s, from which cuttings were taken and propagated widely. This mother tree’s own origin, though, is a mystery; it might have been planted as a suitcase cutting imported from Europe, or it might have appeared on the spot, spontaneously, as a seedling.

Whatever the fig’s birthplace, the variety became popular—and growers noticed that it did well in cool, foggy areas. To build on this virtue, entrepreneurs planted king fig orchards in Los Altos, on the San Francisco peninsula, where investors foresaw a lucrative industry based on the huge June crop that might dominate the market. But the endeavor failed, and the king fig would remain nothing more than a popular garden variety—rarely, if ever, available in stores, but often found dangling just over the backyard fence.

It may be the season, then, to meet your neighbors.