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Know the West

Hunting for feral figs

The gem-like fruit are best when found free in the urban wilds.


Figs dangle from the branches of a mossy tree.

Amy led me off the interstate, down the frontage road, behind the strip mall, and told me to park in front of the tree, sprawling between an apartment complex and the back of a restaurant. The July air was still warm, and heat radiated off the pavement. My friend was excited, nearly giddy. I was almost frightened, worried that we were breaking the rules.

We harvested the sticky purple fruit into plastic grocery bags, ignoring the tingling in our hands from the sap. We picked the tree almost clean, harvesting some seven pounds of glistening, perfectly ripe figs. In our friends’ country kitchen, the four of us sat up late, talking and gorging ourselves.

Amy learned about this tree when she was still in college from a friend who first visited it with his older brother. That means it has been bearing figs for at least 15 years, though I have been unable to trace this strand of traditional ecological knowledge any further.

“Whose tree is it?” I asked. “No one’s,” Amy replied. As we picked, faint light from streetlamps glinted off my red Subaru, but no one appeared to notice us. The area under the tree was littered with rotting fig carcasses. If anyone had been harvesting regularly, the tree would not have been dropping fruit. Which does not, of course, mean that no one owns it. But surely the doctrine of abandonment applies to figs?

And whatever the law might say, I believe that anyone who neglects to harvest such a prolific example of Ficus carica has — at least morally — lost their right to the fruit. Don’t we have a responsibility to enjoy what nature gives us? If a ripe fig is about to fall on a parking lot and nobody cares, isn’t it my responsibility to poach it in white wine and appreciate my good fortune?

I wonder who else knows about this interstate-side fig tree, who times their late-summer trips through the Central Valley around it. I wonder who planted it, if anyone tends it, who else gathers its fruit. We are bonded, United Feral Fig Harvesters of the Sierra, whoever and wherever we might be. I hope my brethren find the tree as magical as I do, this bounty flourishing in its strange suburban setting just off the freeway.

Since that introduction, whenever I drive to and from the mountains in late summer, I gather figs, three or five or even (once) nine pounds at a time. I share them with everyone I know. Roast a greedy amount in a salad. Make tarts bursting with them to show off at dinner parties. Bring a large Tupperware container to a Slovenian friend to remind her of the orchards back home. Leave them in the break room at the office.

At the farmers market in Palo Alto or Menlo Park or even at the stand down the road from the rogue tree, a pint basket of fresh figs costs around $5.99. Approximately eight figs, or about 87 cents per fig, but a bargain compared to Whole Foods ($7.99 a pint on one recent visit). Such prices mean fig lovers tend to treat fresh figs like truffles or saffron or semi-precious stones.

Top salads with chopped morsels, a gem-like gilding for goat cheese and greens. Wrap figs with imported prosciutto and savor as appetizers. Serve a few with honey for dessert. But making tarts or jam or drying by the pound? Anything requiring large quantities is out of the question on the grounds of blowing the week’s — or month’s — grocery budget.

The scarcity adds to the lure of the freeway tree. Giving away figs makes you feel like Santa Claus. When you harvest a tree’s worth, you get to give away many pint-sized gifts. And explaining that they came from a tree growing behind a restaurant on a frontage road makes the giving even sweeter. People seem to prefer their figs feral, with a side of story.

Each autumn comes the afternoon when I realize the harvest is over for the season. I know it’s coming, but the moment inevitably bursts with disappointment. Then I think about next summer.

Someday, though, the tree itself might not be there when I arrive. I worry about how the tale ends. Will the tree’s legal owners cart me off to jail with my sack of stolen fruit? Will the tree fall, unmourned, to some future development? Will I myself depart for a life unimagined, to a place where figs do not grow? Or will the tree imperceptibly, inevitably age and diminish?

I dread that looming loss, when there is no longer a feral fig tree along a Central Valley freeway. When I will struggle to nourish those I love with tiny morsels of overpriced market figs, served without the spicy sauce of story. 

When she is not seeking figs, Amanda Cravens is a social science researcher who studies environmental decision-making in the American West.