Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs

Enjoy Jeanne and Katherine’s holiday take on figs and figgy pudding which will appear on December 19th in Advent Botany 2016. For a longer read, check out our original 2013 version.

Figs reach their peak in summertime, growing fat enough to split their skins under the hot sun. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a bountiful tree, and many a neglected fig is extravagantly abandoned to the beetles.  


Beetles gorge on a fig. Click to enlarge

But here we are, halfway around the calendar in dark and cold December, and we feel grateful for the figs we managed to set aside to dry. Their concentrated sweetness is balanced by a complex spicy flavor that makes dried figs exactly the right ingredient for dark and dense holiday desserts. As we mark another turn of the annual cycle from profligate to provident, what better way to celebrate than with a flaming mound of figgy pudding?

Well, except that the traditional holiday pudding contains no figs. More on that later, along with some old recipes. First, we’ll unwrap the fig itself to find out what’s inside.

Anatomy of the fig

To understand a fig, you have to recall the basic structure of a flower and imagine the various ways flowers can be grouped on a plant. Figs (and related mulberries) cluster their tiny flowers together into dense and well-defined inflorescences. And, in both, all the flowers on an inflorescence develop into a single fused unit, which we casually call a fruit. Before offering the details of what we eat, we’ll need to look at the individual flowers and fruit.

An idealized flower has four concentric rings of parts, or whorls. From the outside in, they are:

1) usually green, modified leaves, called sepals (collectively the calyx), which are prominent in the nightshade family and on persimmons;

2) petals, which are often colored or otherwise showy (together called the corolla);

3) the “male” stamens, consisting of a filament holding aloft a pollen-filled anther; and

4) one or more “female” pistils, anchored by an ovary.  The pistil catches pollen grains, which then grow down through a style to the ovary and the seeds within. The ovary matures into a fruit.

Not all flowers have all of these parts.  Figs make separate flowers with only one or the other sex: “female” flowers lack stamens and cannot make pollen, and “male” flowers lack pistils and cannot make fruit.  Both female and male flowers also lack petals.

Fig flowers are a bit like Christmas presents: you can’t see them without opening up the structure that encloses them, and sometimes the wrapping is more exciting than what’s inside. As it turns out, being hidden from view also means being hidden from all but the most specialized pollinators, which is a big part of the fig story (see below).

Cutaway view of a fig with a closeup of a female flower on the left. Flowers within the fig are shown without a calyx, which is not apparent anyhow.

Cutaway view of a fig with a closeup of a female flower on the left. Flowers within the fig are shown without a calyx, which is not apparent anyhow. Click for full size image

Unwrapping the fig

A fig is essentially  an entire edible flower cluster turned inside out, tucked down inside its own stalk.  This fleshy stalk, the peduncle, is the delicious bulk of what we enjoy when we eat a fig. To understand how we get from a typical flower cluster to a fig, it is useful to imagine a topological transition. Better yet, imagine turning a plain brown dress sock – the ordinary inflorescence –  into a sock puppet – the fig. In your mind, put your hand into the sock. Now pretend that the toe end of the sock is covered with little fig flowers down to the base of your fingers. This structure would be equivalent to a short compact inflorescence with a long peduncle. Now make a sock puppet by pulling the flower-covered part of the sock into your hand until all the flowers are inside and completely surrounded by peduncle (plain sock) tissue. Finally, make your puppet pucker up its lips to close off the flowers inside. The head of the sock puppet is like the entire bulbous fig structure, technically called a syconium. If Santa brings you brown socks yet again this year, do something fun and educational with them. Make your own fig puppets for a family friendly way to learn about syconia.

Fig flowers make gritty little achenes for fruit. (Some sources classify the fruits as drupelets, which are basically achenes with a little flesh on them.) The flowers are attached to the inside of the syconium by flower stalks (pedicels), which get very soft as figs ripen. The sweet part of the fig is a combination of peduncle, pedicels, and sepals.  The crunchy parts are the achenes.  But what about the old legend that wasp parts add a little something to the texture?

Are there wasps in my figgy pudding?

Usually, before fruit can ripen, flowers must be pollinated. In most of the more than 800+ fig species, pollination happens courtesy of small wasps from the Agaonidae family. Figs and agaonid wasps have required one another for existence for at least 60 million years. And like many co-dependencies, this one isn’t pretty. Fig seeds feed wasp larvae. A large family of newborn wasps synchronously emerges from the seeds within a syconium. The wingless, blind males have two quick duties before dying: inseminating their sisters and chewing escape holes for them. Before leaving home, young females gather pollen from male flowers. A winged female has 48 hours to find and enter a new receptive fig, pollinate the flowers, and lay eggs. The fig doesn’t help her. The only opening, the narrow ostiole, is defended with sharp bracts. With specialized jaws and a strong head, she chews her way past this gauntlet and into the fig, but tears her wings and antennae in the process.

The ostiole defended by sharp bracts.

The ostiole defended by sharp bracts.

Figs make two kinds of female flowers: long-styled and short-styled. Wasps can lay eggs only in short-styled flowers, but they are able to transfer pollen to all flowers.  The short-styled flowers thus make wasps, whereas the long-styled flowers make fertile seeds.  Under this arrangement, both the plant and the pollinator may reproduce.  The mother wasp dies after her tasks are complete and fig enzymes devour her body during ripening.  The spent male offspring meet the same fate, while their gravid sisters fly off to other figs.

In about half of fig species, whole trees come in two different sexes: “male” plants are similar to those described above, and their syconia bear both male and short-styled female flowers.  (The ovaries of the female flowers serve mostly as wasp nurseries, so they tend to be forgotten by fig sexers.)  “Female” plants produce syconia containing only long-styled female flowers, and the poor wasp entering one of these cannot lay eggs before dying.  Although her own reproduction is thwarted, she brings pollen from a “male” plant that triggers seed and syconium development.  Some favored varieties (e.g. Calimyrna) fall into this category and are called gynodioecious.  Because they are pollinated, they produce viable seeds and a large sweet fig syconium, but their long-styled flowers preclude egg-laying, and we avoid a mouthful of baby wasps.

Mission fig with ostiole

Mission fig showing its ostiole

Some mutant fig varieties can ripen syconia without pollination.  These parthenocarpic (“virgin fruit”) plants have been propagated asexually by humans for over 11,000 years and comprise most of our edible figs (e.g. Mission and Kadota). They may lack well-developed seeds, but the empty shells of their achenes provide some crunch and their flesh is free of liquified female wasp body. If your Christmas pudding is made with figs, they are probably wasp-free virgin figs.

Bring us some figgy pudding

So what is that round brown flaming mound we know as figgy pudding, plum pudding, or Christmas pudding? Various sources proclaim that figgy pudding contains no figs; however when a printed recipe for an English-style boiled pudding is specifically labeled Fig Pudding, it does include figs. Thanks to the Historic American Cookbook Project, we can look at all eight Fig Pudding recipes (dated between 1870 and 1914) available in the digitized portion of their cookbook collection and confirm that figs are the main fruit ingredient in all of them. Two more fig-filled fig pudding recipes appear in the Macon Cook Book (1936 reprint of 1909 edition) and are presented alongside four figless recipes for plum pudding and Christmas pudding.

Can we thereby conclude that true figgy pudding does contain figs and should not be confused with plum pudding, which does not contain figs and never claimed to?

It’s more complicated than that: the word figgy has been used for centuries to describe something very sweet or, in the 19th century, something made with raisins (Oxford English Dictionary online). Notably, Plum Puddings never include plums or prunes, but are instead full of raisins and could be described as figgy. Thus a plumless figless plum pudding could accurately be called figgy. So although we clearly shouldn’t take “figgy” literally as an adjective, somebody must have taken it as inspiration to transform a medieval English boiled pudding recipe into a fig-filled confection called Fig Pudding.

There’s one last twist to the story: perhaps the most popular early American cookbook, Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896), contains a recipe for a holiday pudding bursting with figs and raisins. She calls it English Plum Pudding.

This season, if carollers come to your door demanding figgy pudding, give them whatever you have. Just be sure it’s warm and soaked in brandy.


Note that these recipes include suet, which is not vegetarian. Some websites recommend frozen vegetable shortening or a commercial vegetarian version of suet  for those wanting to avoid the real thing. Butter’s melting point is too low to stand up to the long boil of the pudding.

From The Macon Cook Book: a collection of recipes tested principally by members of Benson-Cobb Chapter, Wesleyan College Alumnae, Macon, Georgia. J.W. Burke Company, Publisher. (1936 reprint of 1909 original edition)

Fig pudding no. 1

One fourth pound of figs chopped fine, one fourth pound of suet chopped fine, one cup of brown sugar, two cups of bread crumbs, two eggs, a rind and juice of one lemon, one-half grated nutmeg, one tablespoon of flour. Steam three hours and serve with sauce. It is splendid served with whipped cream, slightly flavored with vanilla. –Mrs. Mary Wimberly Robson

From Fannie Farmer’s 1896 The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. 

English Plum Pudding

1/2 lb. stale bread crumbs
1 cup scalded milk
1/4 lb. sugar
4 eggs
1/2 lb. raisins, seeded, cut in pieces, and floured
1/4 lb. currants
1/4 lb. finely chopped figs
2 oz. finely cut citron
1/2 lb. suet
1/4 cup wine and brandy mixed
1/2 grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon clove
1/2 teaspoon mace

Soak bread crumbs in milk, let stand until cool, add sugar, beaten yolks of eggs, raisins, currants, figs, and citron; chop suet, and cream by using the hand; combine mixtures, then add wine, brandy, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, mace, and whites of eggs beaten stiff. Turn into buttered mould, cover, and steam six hours.

Acknowledgements and references:

Thanks to James Preston for calling Katherine’s attention to the Macon Cook Book and to Nancy Anderson for providing a hard copy of it (and inducting Katherine into the tradition of flaming figgy pudding)

Thanks to Quentin Cronk for correspondence about the morphological delimitation of peduncles.

More information about fig pollination may be found at the wonderful site Wayne’s Word

An amazing collection of late 19th and early 20th century American cookbooks is available through Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project based at Michigan State University.

This year’s article is adapted from a longer version, posted in late summer of 2013, that compares in detail the anatomy of figs and their mulberry cousins and includes a summer recipe for fresh figs. This time of year, however, we revel in the charms of dried figs.

Sock puppet fig

Sock puppet fig

10 thoughts on “Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs

  1. Pingback: Advent Botany 2016 – Day 19: Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs | Culham Research Group

  2. Pingback: Advent Botany 2016 – Day 20: Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs | Culham Research Group

  3. Aimee Squires

    Since I love old cookery receipts and am a dyed-in-the-wool biology nut, this blog is perfect. Now, how do I find true beef suet (fat around the kidney suet)?


  4. Pingback: Buddha’s hand citrons and a wish for peace on earth in 2017 | The Botanist in the Kitchen

  5. Pingback: A holiday pineapple for the table | The Botanist in the Kitchen

  6. Pingback: #AdventBotany Day 15: A holiday pineapple for the table | Culham Research Group

  7. Pingback: Kiwifruit 2: Why are they green? | The Botanist in the Kitchen

  8. Pingback: Spruce tips | The Botanist in the Kitchen

  9. Pingback: Some favorite Christmas posts from the past | The Botanist in the Kitchen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.