The fignificent fig man

by Katie Mast

Inside the homemade greenhouses behind Lloyd Kreitzer's Albuquerque house, the temperature pushes past 100 in early September. But Kreitzer, in a long-sleeved button-down shirt, blue jeans and straw cowboy hat, doesn't break a sweat. He moves deliberately among the serrated leaves of young fig trees and grape vines. Pausing at a tall plant, he puts on tortoiseshell glasses, then bends the tree's stem to look for scale. He's so attuned to the plants in his nursery, The Land of Enfigment, that when the saplings get thirsty, he says, "I can hear them clearing their throats."

Kreitzer bought his first fig cutting at Albuquerque's flea market 11 years ago. A month later, he had 120 trees. "The next thing I knew, I had all these cuttings and then all these pots and all this soil. All this background of tropical agriculture learned in the Peace Corps suddenly came out of closets I didn't even know I had, and then I had all these trees." Now, he is a regional expert with 700 potted fig trees, representing 89 varieties, in his backyard.

The specimens come from all over the state. "I would drive up and down back alleys of Carlsbad or Silver City … and if I saw a fig tree, I would knock on the front door and say to the person, 'You have a beautiful fig tree. Tell me about it.' " He'd leave with cuttings, sharing his knowledge of tree pruning and fig-based medicine and recipes in return: "This famous ex-con named Martha Stewart says (a wrapping of) fig leaves is the finest way to prepare salmon she's ever discovered."

On summer Saturdays, Kreitzer takes his pickup to Albuquerque's downtown farmers market. Under the shade of a cottonwood, he displays potted plants and bags of fig tea and soap. The morning sun glints on his turquoise-studded belt and silver bracelet, and his full white mustache hides part of his smile. "My parents didn't know I was going to grow up to be the Fig Man, so they named me Lloyd," he tells customers, brown eyes sparkling mischievously.

Each fig has a story. The white Baca fig, the most expensive and his favorite, came from La Luz, near Alamogordo. Its small, round fruit tastes like a Bellini, a champagne and peach nectar cocktail. Another favorite came from a North Valley man whose grandmother smuggled cuttings in her dress when she came to the U.S. from Italy in 1955. "She risked her immigration to a new country based on her love of the fig," Kreitzer says.

Kreitzer's first fig memories are as a 4-year-old, climbing his uncle's fig tree in Los Angeles. Its fruits were sweet and delicious, and his family had to drag him down from the tree's wide branches. " 'We are all old dogs, and we take our favorite dreams, which are bones, and we bury them for ourselves to dig up later,' " a former student once told him. "I never thought that 50 years later, I would dig up this particular bone and go with it."

But Kreitzer has always looked after living things. Shortly after college, he joined the Peace Corps, tending fish for Japanese meditation gardens in Hawaii and practicing tropical agriculture in Borneo. And, he raised a child.

His daughter remembers his refrigerator, always full of fruit. "You would fondle a fig for what was, for me, too long," she tells him. "Then you'd bring it close to your eyes like you were examining an extraterrestrial … and then you would take a bite and roll your eyes very slowly and discern all the subtleties of flavor and listen to the emollient qualities of the swallow. … I've never seen anybody eat a fig like that in my life."

Despite all this, Kreitzer is retiring from his post as Fig Man to spend more time pursuing his other passions. "(The fig business) has afforded me a great sense of community development, a great sense of pride, a great sense of humor. It's as good a lemonade stand as any to communicate the way I love to communicate, but it's not my identity." His next adventure may be to travel, and he has ideas for books he wants to write, but whatever comes next, he expects it will keep transforming him, just as the figs have done. "When I work the land, the land works me. When I work my relationship, the relationship works me. That's where the divine works us and coaches us – that's where life tries to teach us."

© High Country News