It is thought that the fig was one of the earliest fruits that were eaten by mankind, but they had probably borrowed the idea from watching monkeys and primates race to the trees to get the best fruits each day. This reliance on the sweet fruits seeped into the culture and religion of humans 5000 years ago, hence why the three Abrahamic faiths consider them important fruits, and the Buddha gained enlightenment whilst meditating in the cage of a Strangler Fig.

Ficus religiosais one of 750 different varieties of this plant. They vary from the shiny leafed and normally unloved houseplant to the huge figs whose roots grow down to the ground after they have rooted in the high branches of other trees. Some encase them and kill off their host, others survive in a mutual balance but they are an essential forest plant, supporting up to 1200 other species that reply of then fruits for food.

One thing that they all have in common though is the way that they flower and fruit. The flowers are not visible, contained within the peduncle and have to be pollinated by a tiny wasp around 2mm in length. Each fig has its own specific wasp that crawls in and out of the fruit and if they are not around they there is no pollination. Except the Ancient Egyptians discovered a way of tricking the tree into thinking it had been pollinated.

Until now I had never really given two figs about the fig. Their history, their importance as a food, and the significance that they have had in all sorts of historical events and the way that we intertwine ourselves with figs and the tiny wasps that pollinate them is the untold story of our age. I really enjoyed this fascinating book by Shanahan as it is written from his direct experiences as a biologist seeking out these important trees. If there was tiny flaw though, I felt it was too short, it felt like there were chunks missing from the European history and culture and maybe a little more on the benefits of them as a food stuff. It was a shame because what Shanahan has written in here was really good. One last tip, if you are not sure about them, having suffered fig rolls perhaps, bake them for around 20 minutes and serve with a little mascarpone.

Paul Cheney 4/3

Ladders to Heaven: The Secret History of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan
Unbound 9781783525805 pbk Sep 2018