A Change in Figs

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

To me, the measure of any self-respecting New Orleans-based fig tree is whether it can produce fruit by July 4th. That was always the case with the most common local variety, the Celeste, whose produce seemed programmed to turn purple by Independence Day.

Hurricane Katrina created new gardening opportunities. There is a space behind my house that I never knew what to do with until the storm knocked over the neighbor’s cypress tree, whose shady expanse had prohibited anything from growing there. With the sun now free to zoom in, and in the spirit of the recovery, I wanted to plant trees that would provide food, not so much for the bounty but as a sign of revival – a once-empty spot creating nourishment.

My first planting was going to be a Celeste, which would be the centerpiece of what I now call “the grove.” But in those days post-Katrina the plant nurseries weren’t well supplied. Among the fig trees there were no Celestes but something called a Kadota, at the time an ungainly, squiggly stick in the mud. The tag attached to it assured that it would produce a bulbous, candy-like fruit. There being no other choice, I reached for my mildewed shovel.

Five years have passed, and there’s now a fledgling Celeste near the towering Kadota’s side, as well as so many citrus bushes jammed into the tiny space that it’s possible to see a lime overlapping a fig branch.

When fully grown, a Celeste tree has a rounded, inverted bowl shape, much like a gigantic toadstool; a Kadota just reaches for the sky with no detectible pattern. My Celeste is still young, but I thought it would be capable of providing some fruit by early July. It did not. The Kadota, on the other hand, was a factory. Its fruit don’t turn purple like the Celeste, so the discerning fig picker has to look for plumpness and grope for softness. Chomped into at the right moment, the Kadota provides a burst of flavor that is, as expected, fig-like – yet richer, as though infused with nectar.

Now I’m learning about other sprouts from the ground. On July 4th afternoon we stopped at a party where one of the guests was boasting about ice cream he had made from figs that grew in his backyard. What type of figs? Black Mission! “They grow plentiful,” he said.

News Bulletin: It may be that local figdom has entered a new era. The once dominant Celeste no longer rules.

Expanded nursery production around the country, rapid transportation and the new demands created by Katrina have opened the way for increased variety. The more choices, I guess, the better. Besides, maybe the Celeste will have something to give by Labor Day.
 

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