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Our State Knows Best: Figs

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


No place has a fondness for figs like the state where the fig cake originated. With more than 470 varieties in North Carolina, figs are thought to have arrived on our coast thanks to 18th-century settlers, and at least 16 varieties grow on Ocracoke Island alone — a place that has embraced its famous flower (no, it’s not a fruit!) to the fullest. Whether baked in cakes, preserved in jars, or tossed in salads, our state’s fig fanatics have the know-how to grow them to flavorful perfection.

“Fig culture is famous on the island,” says Chester Lynn, a 10th-generation Ocracoke native, and local fig expert. “When I was growing up, I remember going to see different family members and you could smell the fresh figs cooking. It was just like candy to us.”

We spoke with Lynn and two other experts — Sundae Horn, organizer of the Ocracoke Fig Festival, and Gene Fox, consumer horticulture agent in Beaufort County — to learn more about the rich history of figs, their secrets for growing them, and fun ways to celebrate the beloved fruit on the island.

Our experts

 

Chester Lynn
10th-Generation Ocracoke Native and Local Fig Expert
Sundae Horn
Organizer of the Ocracoke Fig Festival
Gene Fox
Consumer Horticulture Agent in Beaufort County

 

When did your fascination with figs begin?

Sundae Horn: I moved from Ohio to Ocracoke 30 years ago and my neighbor offered me a fresh fig. I had never tried or seen one before and I thought figs only came in Newtons. When I tasted it, I thought it was amazing! A few years after that, my husband and I bought a house that was built in the early 1900s, and, like most of the homes here on Ocracoke, it came with a fig tree. It was very lush and produced a lot every year, so I called one of the older ladies on the island and asked her what to do with it and she talked me through how to make preserves. Then, I got the fig cake recipe from one of the other older ladies on the island and made my first fig cake with my own preserves.

Chester Lynn: I’ve been a plant person all my life. When I was growing up, I’d ask my granddaddy about figs and then I started doing my own research about them. And when I was young, I decided to root some fig trees and give them to the Ocracoke Preservation Society and the rest is history — they just kept selling.

How would you describe one to someone who has never tried one?

Sundae Horn: A fig is like an inside-out flower, so when you open it up, you kind of see what the flower looks like. One of the most popular ones is the Sugar Fig. It’s so sweet, just like a little sugar bomb. It’s little — about the size of a grape — but mushy, so they’re not hard like a grape. You eat the whole thing, skin and all, except for the stem, just like you can with a berry. The one that I have, a Blue Fig, is not as sweet as some, which I appreciate because you can eat more of them at one time.

Can you share any interesting tidbits about their history on Ocracoke?

Chester Lynn: In some of the colonial records on Portsmouth [a small island just off Ocracoke with a shared history] a merchant named John Gray Blount wrote to his business partner John Wallace saying, “I won’t be able to get to Portsmouth until fig season.” That meant that he knew figs were on the island at that time. People didn’t realize there were as many varieties as there are back then, but I’ve counted 16 on the island. To find those other varieties, I would get all the figs that were ripened and put them together so I could see the difference. Then I would take them and write down the original names, and some of them, maybe five or six, have been passed down since the 1700s.

Sundae Horn: They’ve been here since the time of the early settlers. And back then, just about everyone had a fig tree. People would usually plant them near their backdoors or kitchen doors, pour dishwater over them, and put any kind of clam or oyster shell around the base of them. So today, all the older fig trees on the island have clams and oyster shells around them. That’s because the nutrients from when the rain would come would feed the tree. People would dry them, have sugar sprinkled on them, and preserve them. The original fig cake that the islanders used to make would be a yellow or regular cake cut into several layers with fig preserves in between. But sometime in the 1960s, a woman named Margaret Garrish took a recipe for a date cake and modified it to make it into a fig cake. That’s when our traditional fig cake was born. It’s part of a long tradition, and a lot of the older ladies who make fig cakes now are people who grew up here and have the same fig trees in their yard that they had when they were kids.

Before we can taste our figs, we need to grow them! What’s the No. 1 thing we should know?

Gene Fox: Right plant, right place. They’ll grow everywhere in North Carolina just fine, but the only issue is the cold. If you’re in the Piedmont, or the mountains especially, you need to know that they’re not very cold tolerant, so you want to do a lot of work on picking your site and choosing hardy varieties. To protect our plants, one of the things that we can do is plant them on a certain side of the house so that they don’t get that morning sun. Typically, that gives you a little bit more protection against the cold. About the coldest temperature that they’ll tolerate before they start dying off is 15 to 20 degrees, but that doesn’t mean that the roots die. Depending on how big the plant is, you might just have to trim off what dried up top or you might have to cut the whole thing back, but they’ll come back that year and you will still get fruit.

Sundae Horn: It’s easy. Put it in the ground, water it for the first year, and definitely give it some fertilizer. They love our sandy soil on the coast, so if you have hard clay soil, you’re going to need to mend or loosen it up because they’re used to that. Aside from that, they’re easy.

Got it! So which varieties grow best in North Carolina?

Gene Fox: The two main ones that you’re going to hear about are Celeste and Brown Turkey. Celeste is a smaller, purplish-brown fruit that’s really good for desserts. They’re the No. 1 fresh variety in North Carolina for baking desserts, but they can also be frozen and preserved that way. Brown Turkey is a larger variety, and it’s a reddish-brown fruit. It’s the No. 1 variety in North Carolina for cooking and preserves, so they’re not going to be as sweet as the Celeste. Other ones that you’ll find are the Alma Fig, which is a great fresh variety in North Carolina — it’s a small, light-yellow fruit. Then the last is Magnolia, which is a great variety for preserves but can quickly sour in wet weather. That variety, which is bronze, is the largest fig that we typically see in a landscape situation.

Sundae Horn: Figs are great climate-wise through all of North Carolina. The ones that have been in Ocracoke the longest are the Sugar, the Pound, the Lemon, the Blue — which I have — and the Celeste. More recently, because figs have gotten so popular, people have brought in and planted other kinds of fig trees and they all grow really well here. One of the things about them is that they’re salt tolerant. So even though we have high tides with storms, like Hurricane Dorian back in 2019, if they get a lot of salt water, they’ll sort of go dormant and lose all their leaves, but they’ll come right back in the spring. They just really seem to thrive even in our really hot, dry summers. You don’t have to water them, except when they first come in as babies. A lot of people have to cut them back. We have to cut ours back — it’s by our back door, so if we didn’t cut it back every year, we wouldn’t be able to use the back door for most of the summer. They’re also really easy to root and grow. You just have to take a piece off a tree and stick it in some sandy dirt and it will grow from that.

What tips would you give to a fig-growing beginner?

Chester Lynn: You either have to put it in a pot or put it in the ground. In the fall, and if you’re putting it in some place where it’s going to get cold, you have to wrap it. You also need to fertilize it. I tell people, “It’s not a pear tree or an apple tree, you don’t trim the suckers that come up on the bottom of it.” Fig trees are more bushes than they are trees.

Gene Fox: Start by looking for full sun, because anytime we’re growing fruits you need to have sun. Second, you need an area where you’ve got good, moist soil, but it has to be well-drained. I know that kind of sounds conflicting, but there’s a big difference between moist and saturated. For example, after rain, the soil is saturated. But quickly that water drains on through the pores so that it’s not saturated any longer. That would be good, moist soil — it retains some moisture, but it’s not staying saturated. Often what you’ll see is clay soil, which is very prevalent in North Carolina. Clay soils will hold onto a lot of water, so really what you’re looking for is a nice loamy soil, which is a mixture of clay, sand, and loam, with a little bit of organic material in it.

What’s your secret for growing a resilient fig tree?

Gene Fox: Don’t guess, soil test. All too often, we grow things, and we just throw stuff at them without truly knowing. The very first thing is to pick out your site and have a good idea of what you need for that site. Second, test that soil and send it to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to get your recommendation.

Sundae Horn: Ours is planted by the backdoor and we continue to put clams and oyster shells on it because we like to eat both those things. We also trim it back when it takes over and give our trimmings to the Ocracoke Oyster Company to make their fig-smoked barbecue.

Chester Lynn: Keep it fertilized. Everything needs to be fed.

Which varieties are your favorite in the state?

Chester Lynn: The Pound Fig and the Sugar Fig are my favorites and are probably two of the varieties that have been on Ocracoke the longest. When the local people wanted to preserve figs, they would use the Pound Fig because they are bigger, and it would take a lot less time to fill their pots up. When they cooked them, they would add sugar. The local people didn’t preserve the Sugar Fig, which is a really tiny fig, because it was hard to get enough of them. They would eat them with cereal or salads or cut them up and put them in other dishes.

Sundae Horn: The Blue Fig is the one I eat the most, but the Sugar Fig is definitely the most popular. Everyone wants to taste one of those. The Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum has one of those in their backyard, so they have folks who pick them and make preserves to sell in the gift shop.

Gene Fox: The Celeste, because it’s just so sweet and it’s one of the best to eat fresh.

What about your favorite fig treat — how do you like to eat them?

Sundae Horn: I like them best raw off the tree. After that, I would say that I love the traditional fig cake recipe that I got from one of the ladies on the island years ago. I like to make that when I have company or on special occasions because it’s easy and it really impresses people. In more recent years, because people have tried out the different recipes, I would say my favorite way to eat figs just as an appetizer is figs and chèvre. There’s a restaurant on the island that takes chèvre, puts rosemary in it, and then serves it with plain table crackers and fig preserves. It’s just like a bite of heaven. Figs are great over ice cream, too.

Gene Fox: It’s hard to beat the first time I had them, which was with eggs. That was so good. There were eggs, a habanero peach jam that was with it, and good toast.

Chester Lynn: Figs on a homemade biscuit — and fig cake.

Sounds delicious! Are there any fun local traditions we should know about or places where we can give them a try?

Sundae Horn: The Ocracoke Fig Festival, which grew out of this idea of having a fig cake bake-off, which a woman named Robin Payne started on the Fourth of July. We expanded that starting in 2014 and it grew into the Fig Festival. The Ocracoke Preservation Society took it over around 2017 because it really fits with its mission of preserving culture and heritage on the island. I’ve been the coordinator of it since 2014. Currently, we have three categories for the fig cake bake-off: traditional, which is when you use the same ingredients that are in the traditional fig cake; innovative, which is any desserts that have figs in it; and a kid’s category for ages 16 and under. We also have music, which is a big part of Ocracoke culture. We also have vendors, and at least 50 percent of what they sell must be fig-related, which is really great because people get so creative. And we always give a platform for a talk and discussion to Chester Lynn, who is our fig expert and grows and sells fig trees at his antiques shop.

This story was published on Jun 14, 2022

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.