For about a decade, a beautiful fig tree grew in the yard of Elverta resident Mike Nave. The large tree had sprouted there on its own. With such volunteer seedling trees, half will be males, which usually produce inedible fruit, and of the females, most will produce fruit of just mediocre or poor quality. As luck would have it, though, this seedling was a winner. It bore a heavy crop each summer of large purple figs with dense, exceptionally sweet and sticky flesh inside.
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Eventually, Nave had little choice but to cut down the tree. It had grown so big, so quickly, that it was basically a pest, making a colossal mess each year. Besides, it had sprouted too close to the house and now posed a threat to the building. Before doing so, though, Nave cut off several branches and trimmed these down into six-inch twigs. Figs are easily propagated via such cuttings. Placed in a plastic bag with a splash of water, the cuttings soon send out roots and green buds. Planted in potting soil, these will grow into new trees — clones of the original.
Nave mailed these cuttings to several friends, including a farmer near Rio Vista, on the bank of the Sacramento River. Today, on this small farm, Nave’s tree still grows — a five-foot-tall bush that the land’s owner, Harvey Correia, waters, fertilizes and prunes every year along with more than 300 other fig trees.
Correia, a 59-year-old third-generation Delta resident, has one of the most diverse collections of the common fig, Ficus carica, in the world. His trees only cover one acre. However, they represent 348 distinct varieties, some of which have been cultivated and loved for thousands of years, others of which were born just recently — like Nave’s tree, which he named “Emalyn’s Purple” in honor of his wife. The variety has become a favorite among fig hobbyists, though it — like most fig varieties — is completely unknown in the commercial farming world, which is dominated by just several widely-planted varieties.
Correia sells chestnuts and alfalfa from his 47-acre farm, but he does not sell his figs. In fact, much of the crop falls uneaten to the ground each year. Correia’s chief interest in the trees is twig-sized cuttings from their branches. He sells thousands of these every winter to hobbyist growers around the world. Some, like cuttings from the esteemed black Madeira fig, may go for more than $100 each. Other more common varieties, like the commercially dominant brown Turkey, Kadota and black mission, Correia sells for $5 per cutting.
Correia has some competition in the fig cutting market, though not much. Jon Verdick, a collector in San Diego has more than 700 fig varieties at his nursery, Encanto Farms. Another grower, a Lebanese-American in Bethlehem, Pa., named Bassem Samaan, has about 150 varieties. On the island of Mallorca, Spain is another collection — perhaps the world’s largest. There are about 2,000 fig trees there, representing perhaps half that many unique varieties. These collectors earn considerable incomes selling cuttings and small potted trees.
More significantly, however, they are sustaining and distributing fig varieties that, lacking great commercial value, might otherwise vanish.
“It’s not about ego, or having the biggest collection, or making money,” Correia says. “We’re preserving genetic diversity.”
California fig farmers, who grow nearly all the figs produced in the U.S., harvested about 30,000 tons of fruit worth $22 million in 2015, according to the latest crop report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But of all those figs, there were just a handful of genetically distinct varieties — mostly black mission, Kadota, Adriatic and brown Turkey. Meanwhile, almost uncountable heirloom varieties have fallen to the wayside or even disappeared. Potatoes, corn, apples, bananas and most other important crops have been similarly culled into vast monocultures of just a few varieties.
Such homogenized farming systems can be more efficient for production and harvest. However, the risks of relying on only a few genetic variations of a food crop are well known: If every plant in a field, orchard or region is identical, it means a congenital weakness will make every single individual equally vulnerable to foul weather, pests or disease. The Irish potato blight, which led to mass famine, was in part the result of genetic homogenization of Ireland’s most critical food source.
Farming systems built on numerous varieties are more resilient to climatic changes and pest threats. To support diversified farming, and to maintain genetic material that could someday be used to breed new varieties, many governments have established seed banks — like the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado and the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, where seeds of virtually every food crop are stored in a freezing chamber. The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps frozen sperm and eggs of cows, pigs and other livestock animals, in addition to seeds.
The USDA also maintains vast orchards of fruit-bearing trees and vines. Seed banks won’t do for preserving varieties of these crops. That’s because the seeds of most fruits do not produce genetic replicates of their parents. So, the only way to clone and maintain a given variety is to keep it alive in the ground in perpetuity. This is being done at a government site just south of Winters called Wolfskill Experimental Orchards. Here, researchers with the USDA and UC Davis jointly maintain a collection of about 7,000 varieties of grapevines, walnuts, peaches, almonds, mulberries and other tree fruit families.
The orchard, part of the USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository, is also home to almost 300 fig varieties. Many of them were collected as branch tip cuttings on fruit hunting expeditions to the balmy nations of the Balkan peninsula and the lands between the Caspian and Black seas, especially Georgia and Azerbaijan. According to John Preece, a horticulturist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the orchard shares tree cuttings with members of the global research community and, occasionally, commercial growers. Preece says the USDA is working on expanding the collection.
“But we don’t have unlimited room, so we need to be very strategic about what we plant,” he says.
There are, for instance, a number of almost legendary fig varieties — including a purple striped fig rumored to be growing somewhere in California — that the USDA is hoping to locate and acquire. The value of collecting these varieties lies decades in the future, Preece says, when new insect pests and climate change may require breeders to search for genetic resistance and resilience in genetic banks like the Wolfskill collection.
The colorful histories that come along with many cultivated tree varieties are almost as appealing as the fruit the trees produce, and collectors enjoy telling their favorite fig biographies. Correia leads a farm visitor to a six-foot-tall fig tree in the middle of the plot and proceeds to tell the story of Dominick. It takes place in New Jersey, where a local man named James “Coop” Cooper saw an enormous fig tree in a front yard while driving along a quiet suburban street. He pulled over, parked and knocked on the door of the house, and he met the owner, a man named Dominick. Cooper and Dominick became friends and saw each other regularly for 20 years — often when James came by in the summer to pick figs. Several years ago, Dominick died. Shortly after, Dominick’s magnificent fig tree — which had been the size of a barn — was cut down to make way for a stately green lawn. By then, however, Cooper had taken numerous cuttings, and young copies of the tree now grow around the nation.
“For Coop, Dominick lives on,” Correia says, the tree before him soaking up the September sun. “I don’t believe in reincarnation, but that’s kind of what this has become.”
He also has a small Godfather fig in a pot in his nursery, a variety that originally came from Sicily as one of two shrub-sized trees delivered to and planted in Long Island before the filming of The Godfather — a subtle gesture aimed at bringing authenticity to the film set. Again, it was Cooper who located the tree in 2015 at the home of a retired man who once had worked in the film industry. The companion tree had died, and Cooper collected cuttings from the survivor and has since distributed them among several growers, including Correia.
It isn’t only hobbyists and researchers who grow rare figs — so do some small-scale commercial farmers. For example, Ed George, owner of the Peach Farm near Winters, grows 20 fig varieties on about two acres, though he has plans to expand his fig grove while homogenizing the planting toward black mission and a beautiful fig called the panache, with green-and-white striped skin and flesh like raspberry jam inside. Phil Rhodes also grows a varietal spectrum of figs at his farm in Visalia. He harvests figs of eight varieties each year and this spring put a dozen or more new ones in the ground.
While demand for fresh figs has accelerated in the past decade among chefs and foodies, Correia says interest in branch cuttings is waning as he and others in the small industry sate the demand. After all, in the business of selling fig branch cuttings for the purpose of growing a tree, there will be few repeat customers.
“I’m not sure how much longer the market will be here for,” Correia says. “In two or three years, I might have just a few dozen varieties that still sell.”
A flurry of interest in figs has recently come from Thailand, where a small circle of fruit growers in Southeast Asia’s muggy tropical latitudes are taking a fresh interest in Europe’s most ubiquitous tree fruit. Some of these growers have emailed Correia and Samaan with offers of as much as several hundred dollars per cutting of black Madeira trees. That was a year ago, however, and already the interest from these Thai hobbyists is slacking off, Correia says, as they establish their own tree collections.
Eventually, even figs that were rare just a few years ago may become common. Though this will mean diminished sales of branch cuttings for Correia, it is nonetheless what he says is his mission.
“Some of the best figs are really rare, and I don’t think they should be,” Correia says. His many trees, some of them so coveted that Ebay scams have become a common nuisance for prospective buyers, literally drop tons of spoiling fruit to the ground. “They should be common,” Correia says. “People should have them and be able to eat them.”