They brought them in suitcases and in trunks, tucked into the corners of boats and, later, on airplanes. Seeds that became rapini, cardoons, artichokes, cucuzza squash. Cuttings from knobby grape vines that flourished into backyard arbors. And, above all, bits of stick that grew into fig trees. Starting in the late 1800s, when Italian immigrants poured into U.S. port cities, the Mediterranean trees took root in unexpected places: cities whose cold-weather climates seemed hostile to the plant. Yet the trees grew, even if their owners had to wrap them in burlap or bury them underground so they’d survive the cold winters.
One can often identify a garden with Italian roots. Objects such as old-fashioned gardening tools; the icons of Roman Catholic Saints; braids of garlic hanging from garage ceilings; and fig trees. These gardens were sanctuaries for many of our Italian ancestors. They would come home from work on railways, mines and stores and work in their gardens. This was a place they felt most comfortable. Upon immigration, they brought a little bit of Italy with them. They never forgot where they came from.
For Italians, the love affair with fig trees comes from the reverence for a historical means of survival. For agricultural people in Southern Italy, a fig tree offered a source of fruit that could be dried and kept for lean times. The trees also became a symbol of adaptation. If one’s fig tree could adapt and grow in a new country, so would the Italian immigrant.
Several fig tree varieties originate from Italy. Fig trees produce fruit harvests in June through November. The average height of these trees are 15 to 30 feet when mature, although some trees reach up to 50 feet. Fig fruits usually have dark-brown or greenish skins that are easy to peel. The Paradiso fig tree originates from the northern Italian city of Genoa. The Tarantella fig tree's name is derived from Taranto City, a town in southern Italy. The round Tarantellas have brown skin and juicy, sweet fruit. The White Triana fig tree originates from the Triana, a small community in Italy's Tuscany region. The fruit of white trianas have yellowish skin and juicy, reddish flesh. San Pietro Figs grow on San Pietro Island in the Mediterranean Coast, less than 10 miles from Sardinia, Italy. The fig was named after San Pietro, an iconic figure in Catholicism.
The common fig, Ficus carica, is a temperate tree native to Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Generally, this would mean that folks living in cooler climes couldn’t grow figs, right? Wrong. Meet the Chicago Hardy fig. What is a Hardy Chicago Fig? Native to Sicily, hardy Chicago figs, as the name suggests, are the most cold tolerant fig trees available. This beautiful fig tree bears luscious medium sized figs which are produced on older wood in the early summer and fruit on new growth in the early fall. Also known as ‘Bensonhurst Purple’, this tree can grow up to 30 feet (9 m.) in height or can be restrained to around 6 feet (2 m.). Chicago figs do well as container grown trees and are drought tolerant once established.
1. The Italian Immigrants Who Grew Fig Trees in Unlikely Places by Reina Gattuso, December 16, 2020 https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/italian-fig-trees
2. What Is A Hardy Chicago Fig? by Amy Grant. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/figs/hardy-chicago-fig-trees.htm
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