Family Name: Moraceae
Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life”
Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life”
Much like our other tonic plants, the fig has been taken as far and wide as has the fig tree, and people have carried this plant around the globe for a variety of reasons. They like to eat it, and they find it makes the whole body feel better. This is the original world traveler. For centuries figs have been recommended to treat cancer, constipation, scurvy, hemorrhoids, gangrene, liver conditions, boils, and eruptions, and to restore energy and vitality.
The fig tree is native to Asia Minor and Syria , extending into Africa and Oriental countries, the Mediterranean Islands , and elsewhere. It is now cultivated in the temperate countries of the entire world. The fig leaf has a well established myth. Adam and Eve supposedly covered their secret parts with leaves torn from the tree. Though a quaint myth, fig sap is exuded from leaves when pulled from the tree, and copiously exuded at that. This sap is an extreme irritant and causes blistering, so it is unlikely that the troubled pair doned fig tree outfits more than once.
The fig tree being held in religions is a very old happening, it may have been one of the first fruits cultivated, and it is such an amazing tree it is easy to see how it could get all caught up in mysticism. Most Americans only know of the fig tree as the active ingrediant in fig newtons, which from a health perspective is as good a manner as any to take in this life supplementing plant. However, from an aesthetic level, you haven’t lived until you have eaten a fresh fig, ripping it from the tree, and plopping it in your mouth. Nothing compares to it, the moment the fig hits your mouth your head says this is ambrosia, food of the gods. It is not your run of the mill fruit, so exceptional that it is easy to understand why most cultures feel it to be divinely inspired.
Our starting off point is going to have to be the Bible. I don’t want you to get me wrong, I am not Bible thumper, but it is a piece of literature that has changed the world. Whether for better or worse, we can let the historians debate. But for those of us searching the stacks for hints of plants that might be preventative medicine, the Bible is a good place to start. It is a record of the plant used in the cradle of civilization. When a plant gets a mention in the Bible, it means that it was probably used for thousands of years before it ever got written down. The fig was the first plant mentioned by name in the Bible, and it gets mentioned fifty seven times, after its initial and first mention. Having picked through the Good Book in search of plant information, I have realized one thing, nothing happens in the Bible by accident, and it is no accident the fig is the first plant listed. The Hebrew word for fig is tena. By the by, some Biblical scholars do not feel the leaf worn as garment in the Garden of Eden was a fig leaf, and for reasons already listed, let’s hope not. Along with the date, some scholars feel the fig is the tree of knowledge mentioned in the Garden of Eden. In Samuel it is noted that Abigail somewhere around the year 1066 b.c. sent King David a little present of two hundred cakes of figs.
This was her way of saying, “Hello there sailor.”
The fig grew extensively in the Middle East at the time the Bible was put down on paper, as it is now. In the Bible the notion of happiness being every man having his own orchard with a fig tree in one corner. The custom of planting a fig tree in the corner of the orchard is mentioned in Luke, and a trip to the sandy lands will find that the same is continued to this day. The author would argue that heaven on earth is attainable. Sitting under a huge fig tree, protected from the hot sun, eating luscious fruits that are up to 70 percent sugar, with the birds cheeping overhead, this is heaven.
The medicinal use of figs is almost as ancient as the plant itself. The Old Testament tells of an Israelite king, Hezekiah, who was “sick unto death,” from “a boil,” which was probably a cancerous growth. Isaiah called for “a lump of figs.” The King recovered. Let’s take a closer look.
In the Bible, the fig is one of the plants mentioned being used in healing, in Kings II, 20:7.
The back drop is that King Hezekiah has cancer, and is not doing well at all. The prophet Isaiah drops by for a little visit.
“And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, thus saith the Lord, set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.”
Thanks for the encouraging get well visit, Isaiah. Rather upset by his visit’s cherry news, Hezekiah starts wailing:
“I beseech thee Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.”
And Hezekiah sat down for a good old boo hoo session. The Lord heard the boo-hooing, checked his records, and sent a change of destiny slip down to bookkeeping. The change was processed and low and behold:
“And Isaiah said, take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.”
The prophet heals King Hezekiah of a cancerous condition using nothing but the fig. The reference is so strong it has to raise some questions. We will talk about its use in cancer therapy at a later time, but make a note that figs have been proven to be an effective treatment for cancer.
In the Bible the Children of Israel are continually threatened and rewarded with mentions of the fig. If they act nice, their figs will do well, and if they act badly, their figs trees will die. The importance here is just how important the fig tree was to the people. God didn’t threaten them with stories of their petunias dying. He went for the gusto, for the plant that kept them alive, the fig tree.
Not wanting to be left out, the early church jumped in on the fig legend. The story goes that Mary, when being chased by King Herod’s men, at the point of being taken, was standing by a fig tree. The fig tree opened itself up, Mary stepped in, the tree closed up, and kept her hidden until they had passed. Later Judas is said to have hung himself on the limb of a fig tree. Once again, the fig was an important tree to the people. They knew something was special about it. And we think it is just the ingrediant in fig newtons.
The fig and Arabians have something in common, they both live in the same place. As such they are used by their people for food and medicine. The ancient Egyptian king Mithrydates in 1551 b.c. proclaimed figs a health tonic and the fig is repeatedly mentioned in the Arabian Nights, a hint of the pleasure derived from the plant by that culture. Their medicinal uses look something like this:
- Leaves for treatment of eyes, red and painful conjunctiva are rubbed with the leaves and then subjected to a bath of rose water in which pounded bitter almonds were soaked. Apparently the leaves with their hairy texture well clean the eye lids.
- Dry pounded leaves mixed with honey cures white leprosy
- Decoction of leaves erases freckles
- Wood and fruits used in preparation of anti-poison medication
- Said to be diuretic, emollient, laxative
- Fermented fruits are made into a liquor, flavored by anise, that is said to be a most excellent tonic
- The dried fruit is cooked and taken every morning with olive oil for hemorrhoids
Most notably the Arabians see the fig as incredibly strengthening to the body, building stamina and vigor. Symptom of virility being producing lots of children, which the fig is reported to make happen, so if big families are not it for you, better take precautions.
Though its homeland is said to be the cradle of civilization, the fig slowly spread as travel in the ancient world increased. The fig was an instant hit in Rome and by the year 23 a.d. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, was writing about the health giving properties of the fig. “Figs are restorative, and the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness”.
The life of a gladiator was one where winning was a priority, loosing meant death, and under the circumstances the professional athletes of the day took every element of their personal fitness regime real seriously. Pliny noted that these ancient sport warriors were fed a diet of figs to bring on incredible strength and stamina. Hey, if they were good enough for the gladiators, they are good enough for me.
In classical mythology Luceus was transformed into a fig tree by Rhea, the mother of the gods. In another story, the fig was said to have been created by Bacchus, the god of wine and party. Romulus and Remus when floating down the river in their cradle got snagged up in the roots of a fig tree, and it was in that spot that the she wolf that raised them discovered them cold and hungry. This site is the very site that Rome was said to have been built on and as such, the fig was a sacred item to the Romans.
Of course the Romans had their own special way of showing respect for things, and during the empire days, 29 b.c. through 395 a.d., figs were used as party favors given and carried by guests at social functions. It seems the women would wear necklaces made of figs, edible panties of days gone by, and the men carried penis sculptures carved out of fig wood. This tells you something about what the Romans thought of the fig. It filled you with vitality or power, in all areas, including the bedroom.
The history of the fig doesn’t end with the Romans. Charlemagne, in 812, ordered its cultivation in central Europe, and in the reign of Henry VIII fig trees still standing in the garden of Lambeth Palace were brought to England, though the fig was unquestionably cultivated in England before that date. The fig doesn’t do well in England as it doesn’t get the hot summer days that are required to fill the fruit with the sugar it is famous for, but the dried fruit made its way into England very early in history.
Today we see food and medicine as two separate items, in days gone by they were one and the same. I was talking to an African American herbalist the other day, and she made an excellent point that we don’t seem to remember, you are what you eat. If you eat powerful foods, like the fig, you become powerful. If you eat dead foods like chips and french onion dip, you become dead. Pretty simple if you ask me. In Gerard’s text we see a listing of the virtues carried by this food:
“Figs be good for the throat and lungs, they mitigate the cough, and are good for them that be shortwinded. They ripen flegme, causing the same to be easily spit out, especially when they be sodden with Hyssop, and the decoction drunke.
“Figs stamped with sale, rew, and the kernels of nuts withstand all poyson and corruption of the air. The King of Pontus, called Mithridates, used this preseruative against all venom and poison.
“Figs stamped and made into the form of a plaster with wheat meal, the powder of fenugreek, and linseed, and the roots of marsh mallowes, applied warm, do soften and ripen imposumes, phlegmons, all hot and angry swellings and tumors behind the ears, and if you add thereto the roots of lilies, it ripeneth and breaketh venerious impostumes that come in the flanke, which impostume is valled Bubo, by reason of his lurking in such secret places”: in plain English terms they are called blotches.
“Dry figs have power to soften, consume, and make thine, and may be used both outwardly and inwardly, whether it be to ripen or soften impostumes, or to scatter, dissolve, and consume them.
“The milky juice either of the figs or leaves is good against all roughness of the skin, lepries, spreading fores, tetters, small pockes, measels, pushes, sheales, freckles, lentils, and all other spots, scuruinesse, and deformitie of the body and face, being mixed with barley meal and applied: it doth also take away warts and such like excrescences, if it be mingled with some fattie or great thing.
“The milk doth also cure the toothache, if a little lint or cotton be wet therein, and put into the hollowness of the tooth.
“It openeth the veins of the hemorrhoids, and looseneth the belly, being applied to the fundament.
“The green and ripe figs are good for those that be troubled with the stone of the kidneys, for they make the conduits slipperie, and open them, and do also somewhat cleanse: whereupon after the eating of the same, it happeneth that much gravel and sand is conveyed forth.
“Dry or barrel figs, called in Latin Carica, are a remedy for the belly, the cough, and for old infirmities of the chest and lungs: they scoure the kidneys, and cleanse forth the sand, they mitigate the pain of the bladder, and cause women with child to have the easier deliverance, if they feed thereof for certain dayes togeterh before their time.
“It bringeth down the menses, if it be applied with the yolk of an egg or with yellow wax.”
I think Gerard summed it all up when he said, it preserves us from all pestilence. This is old English for, it keeps you well. Getting back to my favorite topic, bathroom talk, Gerard along with the rest of the world, felt that figs cleaned you out of all bad things. If you have ever eaten one too many figs, you know exactly what he meant. But this cleaning out process is a wonderful, note I didn’t say pleasant, thing. As we get all the garbage out of our system, the immunity functions don’t have to work so hard, and can focus on killing the little bugers that enter into our bodies and cause problems, like bacteria that take us out of the game for a week at a time.
As the Spanish and the English started their colonial efforts, they brought with them articles of necessity and their favorite plants. The fig’s history in the Americas is complicated, but their use as a health giving plant consistent. The first figs were brought by the Spaniards, and were planted in South and Central America , Mexico , Texas and California . The English brought figs and planted them in the Southern United States, along with the French planting French varieties in the French territory of Louisiana .
On the Anglican side of things in America , the most notable report is that Aaron Burr once had a swollen jaw, disfiguring pimples, and infected skin boils. He applied a poultice of figs and by morning the swelling had reputedly gone down. This is quite in keeping with the English people’s use of it in southern colonial America for skin treatments. The Southerners used figs to treat boils, sores, pulmonary and kidney infections, as a laxative, and also as a general tonic for strong health.
To this day, in the Low Country, otherwise known as the South Carolina swamps, fig sap is applied to ring worm and the leaves are smoked to relieve asthma. In the days when gentlemen sat on the porch with mint julep in hand for a little smoke, the pipe stems were frequently made of sapling fig branches. Quite typically, the figs themselves were used to keep you regular and was used in a syrup for bronchitis.
Down Louisiana way the Creoles also apply fig tree sap to treat ringworm and also insanity. The hoodoo doctors suggest putting a fig and oak leaf in the shoe, the fig leaf is recommended to be taken from a tree that has yet to produce fruit. The hoodoo doctors suggest taking the stem off both leaves so they don’t extend out of the shoe, lest people know that you are being treated for madness.
Higos as they are called in New Mexico , are also used to treat asthma, the inhabitants of that region suggest smoking the substance vigorously and inhaling deeply, holding the smoke for as long as is possible. A smooth smoke figs leaves would not be, but the New Mexican grandmothers agree, this will take care of asthma.
They also recommend a split fig placed on a reptured navel of a newborn baby.
The same mission fathers that planted the fig in the American southwest planted them in and around South America and the fig factors heavily into Latin home curing. In the Islands a tea made of the dried leaves is used to treat diabetes. In Cuba , Curacao , Venezuela and Columbia , the leaf decoction is strained through a cloth and taken as a remedy for colds and chest afflictions. Like the New Mexicans, the Venezuelans believe smoking the leaves will relieve asthma. In Cuba figs are steeped in wine to treat whooping cough, and the Mexicans find putting some fig sap into a cavity will take the pain and the infection away. Throughout the Latin world roasted figs are seen as key medicine for any sort of chest ailment, and as a killer body tonic. The sap is also used to clean utensils, a cough medicine and a household cleanser all in one bush. Who needs the drug store anyway?
In China , the fig is used to treat stomachs that are acting up and for people in a state of declining health. Like the Arabians, the Chinese use the fig to treat hemorrhoids, but they don’t eat them, they steam the leaves and apply them to the source of discomfort. The Indians use the fruit of the plant as a body builder, stating the fruit can be 60 to 70 percent grape sugar when ripe, a food readily absorbed by the body. They also use the fig mashed to a pulp to treat skin conditions of all sorts.
As much as I hate to get graphic for your sake, the power of the fig to improve health and vigor may be due to its ability to get the body eliminating properly. Going to the bathroom, something nobody likes to talk about, is an important part of remaining healthy. Regular movements of the bowel and the bladder are the body’s way of getting the bad stuff out of the body, stuff that is toxic to the cells. Going to the bathroom is an important action, and it should be regular. The fig is considered supreme in getting you cleaned out, which, though no one likes to point the fact out, is important.
Now let’s get to the cancer facts I mentioned a little earlier, it would seem Japanese scientists at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research at the Mitsubishi-Kasei Institute of Life Sciences in Tokyo looked into the cancer claims held up in the Bible, and by people that have access to the fruit. They found a chemical included in the fig that does, in fact, treat cancer patients. In a nutshell, the Japanese implanted cancer cells into mice, then injected the sites with fig extracts. The cancer tumors shrunk, down by a third. The substance, benzaldehyde, was then tested on other cancer patients with wonderful success. It seems Isaiah knew what he was doing.
Today, the closest most of us get to a fig is in a cookie I am not going to mention by name, but here is a hint. Fig n____n. And if this is how you get your saving dose of the fig, more power to you. There is no bad way to take this fruit into the body. With its track record, we should all make this one a daily routine. The really exciting part is that a fresh fig is the most wonderful fruit in the world, one that has been described as the food of the gods, for good reason. If you haven’t tasted a fresh fig from the tree, and I mean one you grow yourself, you have missed one of the greatest pleasures in life. Even the fresh ones at the market don’t compare as the fig gets its sugar in the last days on the tree, and they also turn into a blob of mush, making it impossible to pick and ship. As such, they are picked before ripe, which in my mind defeats the point.
So grow it yourself. I was told when I moved to Washington , D.C. it was too cold to grow figs, I now have 250 different varieties thriving in my backyard. If it’s too cold in your area, plant the fig in a pot and bring it into the basement for the cold of winter. Figs have to be brought in during the winter in areas north of the Mason-Dixon line . You can start your own fig tree with a branch of somebody else’s, or order a rooted tree from one of the many mail order houses that deal in them.