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You'll Never Be Able To Unlearn What Figs Are

Most of the figs from a classic fig tree contain at least one dead wasp.

24/08/2016 8:01 PM AEST | Updated 01/09/2016 4:22 AM AEST
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It was eye-opening when we learned that artichokes are actually flowers. And that capers are pickled flower buds. But coming across what figs really are ― and the wasp that makes them possible ― has just made us question every truth we know in this world. 

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Close up of a fig.

In simple terms, figs are technically not a fruit ― they are inverted flowers. Fig trees don’t flower like apples and peaches. Their flowers bloom inside the pear-shaped pod, which later matures into the fruit we eat. Each flower then produces a single, one-seeded, hard-shelled fruit called achene ― that’s what gives the fig the crunch we know ― and the fig is made up of multiple achene. So when we eat a fig we are actually eating multiple fruits

But that’s not the end of the uniqueness that sets the fig apart.

Because fig flowers bloom internally, they need a special process for pollination. They cannot rely on the wind or bees to spread their pollen ― that’s where the fig wasp comes in. The fig cannot survive without the fig wasp to spread its genetic material, and the fig wasp cannot live without the fig, because that’s where it lays its larva ― this relationship is known as mutualism.

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Drawing of a fig wasp.

The female fig wasp enters the male fig ― we don’t eat the male figs, by the way ― to lay its eggs. The male fig is shaped in a way to accommodate the laying of wasp eggs. The female wasp’s wings and antennae break off when entering the small passage in the fig so once it’s in, there is no way out. It’s up to the baby wasps to continue the life cycle. Male baby wasps are born without wings, because their sole purpose is to mate with the female offspring ― technically their sister ― and dig a tunnel out of the fig. It’s the female offspring that make the journey out, bringing pollen with them.

If a fig wasp enters a female fig accidentally ― the ones we eat ― instead of a male one, there is no room in the interior for it to reproduce. And it cannot escape, because its wings and antennae have broken off. So the wasp dies inside, which is unfortunate but necessary because that’s how it delivers the pollen giving us the fruit we love.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean the crunch in the fig is a wasp carcass. The fig uses an enzyme known as ficin to break down the wasp into protein, though it doesn’t always break down the entire exoskeleton. So, yes, technically when you bite into a fig you are in fact eating fig wasps ― or what once was a fig wasp ― but you can at least console yourself with the fact that they’re incredibly small. Some vegans might choose to stay away from this fruit for this very reason.

Here’s the good news: According to Karla Stockli, the CEO of the California Fig Advisory Board, more than 95 percent of figs produced and sold commercially in California are self-pollinating. And luckily, many of the figs that we buy in the U.S. are from California. “California produces 100 percent of the nation’s dried figs and 98 percent of fresh figs under the best growing conditions and highest quality standards in the world,” Stockli explains.

Phew.

Watch the video below from Brain Stuff to see exactly how the pollination process works. 

And here’s another video that explains the way ficin works in more detail:

If that didn’t totally turn you off from figs, we have some great fig recipes for you below.

Clarification: This article has been updated to note that most of the commercially available figs in the U.S. do not require pollination.

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Fig Recipes

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