This past April was the cruelest month for New Jersey fig tree growers.
That was when — after a long and hard winter — fig tree lovers waited in vain for buds as a spring cold snap suddenly appeared to freeze the sap and kill limbs. It was painful.
I know because I am one of those who waited.
Instead of cultivating bright red Jersey tomatoes in my small backyard on the border of Trenton and Hamilton, I tend dark Mediterranean fruit. And like many others I am devoted to my fig trees — including one grown from a cutting of a tree that my family has been nursing for more than 40 years.
And while to many in the area it may seem like an unusual pursuit, it’s not. There is a legion of us — a benign sort of cult — who tend to our gardens with deep satisfaction.
But don’t take my word for it.
Princeton-area food writer Linda Prospero is another with a passion for figs. “I will do whatever needs to be done to assure that a tree makes it through the winter,” says the creator of Cao Chow Linda, an Italian cooking blog that has a bounty of imaginative fig dishes.
Her court-worthy testimony supports my claim: “I know quite a number of people who have fig trees. They’re pretty passionate about them too. I know people in Princeton who are religious about taking care of their trees. I have friends in Brooklyn. They’re fanatics about their figs.”
The reason, she says, is both cultural and personal. “It’s a way to connect to Italy, which is where my relatives are from. It’s a way of people savoring or remembering what their parents told them of the freshness. I really feel that it is important to pass this on to my children. It’s a pride of Italian roots. I’m passing down to my family what was passed down to me.”
Yet just as I — mainly Irish — and other regional fig growers experienced, Prospero saw once proud trees become skeletons. And though suckers eventually rose from the roots months later, the summer was marked by new green but little fruit.
Now this autumn brings the haunting question: what’s the best thing for a fig tree grower to do to prepare for another potentially brutal season?
There are some answers, but first let me share a few thoughts on this sweet obsession and tell how this invasive species took root in the Garden State.
Historians say that fig cultivation reaches into prehistory, even before wheat. A veritable tree of life, the heat-loving plant grows easily in the Mediterranean and produces an abundance of fruit. So it is no surprise that a symbiotic relationship blossomed between people and plant.
The tree also entered the human imagination. Thanks to its allure, scent, shapes, and colors, figs became a symbol for an unconscious and sensual power. “The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” says the yearning voice in “Song of Solomon,” a Biblical chapter known for mingling both physical and spiritual longing.
The fig reference took root in songs and writings throughout the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece, and continued to prosper. In the 20th century, D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Figs” made no bones about reinforcing the concept that the fruit represents an erotic force. So it is no coincidence that Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves after encountering a tempting fruit and that nude statue figures often sport fig leaves (perhaps telegraphing sexuality or life).
On the non-poetic side figs are in the family of flowering plants called Moraceae (which interestingly includes the fruit tree that Buddha sat under when he experienced enlightenment) and in the genus ficus (the Latin name that bore the word fig).
The most hardy variety is the common fig (Ficus carica), a plant that does not need pollination to produce fruit. They were brought to the United States mainly by Italian immigrants who wanted to bring their homeland to the New World, made cuttings, and packed them away.
Surprisingly, cities gave figs a good home: the ambient warmth of brick buildings provided heat and protection from cold. Consequently today New York City, especially Brooklyn, has many fig trees (and a community of fig tree experts), and some backyards in the formerly Italian section of Trenton, Chambersburg, still have fig trees. When Trenton families moved to the Lawrenceville, Hamilton, and other parts of the region, figs came along and made themselves at home.
If you don’t believe me, learn to identify the leaf and be ready to spot fig trees around the area, including those unlikely locations — like the one exposed to the winds of the Delaware River near Washington Crossing State Park on Route 29.
You’ll also marvel that these warm weathered trees have learned to endure New Jersey winters. But, as noted, this past winter was different.
Again, don’t take my word for it.
“They all froze to the ground,” says Nicola ‘Nick’ Cifelli, a 75-year-old man who has shared his life with figs. “All my life, since Italy,” he tells me.
Cifelli — who knows how to prepare figs trees for winter — is the end of a word-of-mouth-search for a fig expert. It ended when a wholesale garden supplier advised without hesitation, “Go see this guy on Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton. He’s an old Italian guy who has a yard filled with figs.”
A visit proves that Cifelli is the real deal. When I ask how his trees fared over the past year, he says, “I never remember a winter like it! We never lost a fig tree like we did to the cold!” His eyes punctuate his words.
He leads me into his small backyard where several fig trees rise like leafy green fountains and a few dozen potted trees soak up the early autumn sun.
“Some with thick trunks, five or eight inches, died. It was bad,” he says, parting the deep green leaves of a variety known as Brown Turkey and exposing a stump that shows new stalks — about five or six feet tall. “I got some fruit. But there’s none now, or I’d let you have some.”
Responding to my question about his background, Cifelli says he’s from Abruzzi — and has the accent to prove it. He says he came to New Jersey 54 years ago. “I was 20, but three days later I turned 21.”
He arrived in Trenton with his father, a construction worker, and lived first on Broad Street. He then lived in Pennington for a little over a year, then back to Trenton (Franklin Street), and started his own business. “I worked for myself for 50 years, mainly ceramic tile and marble. My company was Nick Cifelli General Contractor. I built this house in 1974,” he says pointing to the home he shares with his wife, Maria. They attended school together in Abruzzi and now have one son, a dentist.
“This tree is from dad’s fig,” he says, explaining how he made a cutting, then another, and then another. The trees in the pots are all from cuttings. “Take the shoots with some roots on them and put them in pots,” he says matter-of-factly.
“I was so proud, and I lost them all,” he says seemingly searching for the lost trees in his miniature grove.
About the coming winter, Cifelli talks about options and cites his experiences as well as those of his two brothers, also in the Trenton area.
Option one is easy: have potted plants and just move them out of the cold. Although they will need some root trimming and change of container in the future, they’ll be safe, alive, and producing fruit.
Option two is burying the tree before the ground freezes and then digging and raising it up around Easter, a practice that old-time fig growers practiced regularly. Cifelli says it works best for a young tree. Larger ones are more difficult to shift, although some can be partially buried to help protect them from the cold. “My brother had one eight inches wide. He dug a hole on one side and bent it.” Cifelli gestures to show how the tree was tilted. “He then covered (the base) with dirt and put some plastic on top of it and covered it. All the way down, tar paper first, and then put dirt on top of the plastic tarp.”
Before noting that the tree survived a cold spell, Cifelli says that there were other challenges and that his brother almost got arrested. “His neighbors thought he may have killed someone and was burying a body in the backyard. So they called the police, and they came over and asked him to see what was buried. People get crazy.”
The next option is wrapping and then going an extra yard. About last year, Cifelli says, “I covered the trees with rolls of black plastic. Strong. Wrapped and tied (the plastic) in layers. But because it was so cold, no matter what you did, it wasn’t helping. I have another brother. He tied the trees together and put six two-by-fours around it and put wrap over it. Inside he put an electric heater, the kind that looks like a radiator. He used it when it when he knew it was going to get real cold. He saved everything.”
Responding to questions about wrapping trees in other materials, such as bubble wrap, Cifelli says that if it gets too cold nothing will help. He mentions a friend who wrapped his tree in a rug mat, but that did not work. And someone else wrapped only half the tree, which causes additional problems. “Sometime that holds the cold air in more,” he says.
The final option is to do nothing and let nature take care of the future. If the roots are strong and deep, the tree’s limbs may die, but it will create new growth, he says.
Asked if pruning the tree down would help, he says that cutting produces more fruit (and it is best to prune the tree at the start of spring), but that no matter the size of the tree there will always be sap that can freeze and limbs that can die.
Looking at his trees, Cifelli maps out his strategy for meeting another potentially cold winter: “I am going to wrap again. No heater. I don’t have the money. But if I had it, I’d use it. I’m also not going to cover some and see what happens.”
What’s the attraction to figs? “I like the taste and sometimes we dry the figs. It’s not like in the store with some white stuff. It’s nature.” Then he gets to the heart of the matter, “In the spring, I come out and look. It’s a sign of spring and life.”
I know what he is talking about.