Overthinking the parables: the fig tree

by Kathryn Smith

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” Luke 21:29-30
Look at the fig tree:
  • An ancient genus, Ficus is one of the oldest known cultivated food sources. Fossilized figs have been found in the Jordan Valley dating back to 9200 BCE. The genus itself is thought to be roughly 80 million years old.
  • Fig trees bear no visible flowers. Fruit and flower are knit up together, hundreds of tiny florets lining the inner wall of each fig, and each floret requires pollination for the immature fig to develop into an edible fruit.
  • If you do a Google search for “fig leaf clothing,” you get lots of hits for regular clothing, and plenty for lingerie, but nothing made from actual fig leaves beyond some references to Adam and Eve.
  • A variety known as the strangler fig sprouts in the crook of another tree’s branches. In its quest for sunlight in a dense forest canopy, it envelops the host tree with its roots, robbing the host of nutrients and ultimately killing it.
  • In order for a fig to be pollinated, a tiny wasp (length: 1.5 mm; lifespan: 48 hours) must enter the immature fruit through its ostiole, a hole that allows only this wasp to enter.
  • Each species of fig tree has its own species of fig wasp. There are hundreds of species.
  • Buddha received enlightenment under a type of fig called the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) is sacred in Hinduism.
  • According to the Gospels, a hungry Jesus once cursed a fig tree for having leaves but no fruit. The tree withered at once.
  • The fig wasp cannot reproduce without the fig. It’s the only place she can lay her eggs.
  • Ancient Egyptians were buried with a cache of food in their tombs–oxen meat, cheese, dried figs, beer. This food would sustain them on the journey to the afterlife.
  • When fig wasps hatch inside a fig, the males mate with the females, then die. They have no wings. When the winged females hatch, they leave the fig, streaming out in a seemingly endless procession. Wasp after wasp after wasp. You can watch videos of this on the internet, and it will give you the willies.
  • Once emerged from the fig, the female wasp flies away–sometimes as far as 100 miles–to find a new fruit in which to lay her eggs. She’s carried pollen with her from that first fig, the fig of her birth, and as she attempts to lay her eggs, she spreads the pollen to the fig’s tiny flowers. That’s how the fig develops seeds and ripens into edible fruit.
  • Sometimes symbiosis looks like infestation. Sometimes transformation pivots on ruin.

Kathryn Smith is a poet, a gardener, a chicken wrangler, and a newspaper copy editor. You can read a poem she wrote about figs here.

The ficus image at the top of this post is from here.

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