This is a story about trying to grow a plant where it doesn’t belong.
I live in Colorado. But I am not from here. Colorado is lovely, but it is not home. Home is New England. Greater Boston, specifically, where my family still lives. But this is not just my story of trying to grow a plant where it doesn’t belong. It’s a shared story that moves from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to home gardens outside Boston, to the mountains of Abruzzo, Italy, which is home for my family—my mother, her brothers, and the paisani who emigrated with them after World War II.
The plant is a fig. From ancient times, it has been widely cultivated in Mediterranean climates. It’s a world traveler, adapted to grow in a range of soils and even elevations, provided that the air is dry and warm. Its roots are strong, making the plant tenacious and improbable.
Figs grow in unlikely places—like upside down in the ruins of Roman baths, in the cracks of a church tower fifty feet off the ground in Croatia, out of a sidewalk drain in Naples, Italy, in my uncle’s backyard in Braintree, MA.
But figs don’t like the cold. The Northeast is warm and humid for a couple of months out of the year, and the figs are happy, offering gorgeous fruits for a few sweet weeks in the late summer. But it is bitterly cold and wet many more months out of the year, and the figs suffer unless elaborate and time-consuming measures are taken to protect them from the icy winds and snow. Colorado, on the other hand, is cold and dry, with air so desiccated that even rain and snow can dry up before they reach the ground. Or alternatively, it is hot and dry, with a parching, high-elevation sun that bakes the life out of even desert plants.
Why did I so want to grow a fig? Because figs remind me of home and family and connections missed, just as they remind my mother and her brothers of a different home, a family left behind, a connection broken. And let’s face it, they are weird and delicious, with a ever-so-rubbery purple skin that gives way to sweet (but not too sweet) and fleshy insides that look disturbingly like alien guts. And so, in a collective family effort executed over several months, my uncle grew a fig sapling for me. He gave it to my mother, who carefully bundled the little plant in moist paper towels, gently locked it up in a plastic baggie, packed it into her carry-on suitcase, and, after a short conversation with airport security, boarded the plane for the long flight to Denver.
Our first priority when she arrived was settling the fig into its new home. We picked out a shimmering copper-colored pot, filled it with the right soil combination, and found the perfect spot with just enough sun and just enough shade. We planted the fig sapling on a beautiful spring day. My mother stayed with us for about three weeks, helping me create a garden in our new house. Every afternoon, we sat in the backyard, plotting, all while keeping an eye on the little fig.
About two weeks after my mother left, I was sitting in the backyard, drinking a cup of coffee and looking at the fig sitting on the porch and imagining the fruit I would eat when the tree matured. Sadly, I wasn’t the only one with the fig in its sights.
As I sat there, clueless of what was about to happen, a squirrel jumped out of the tree and onto the porch. He sauntered up to the fig and, with an eye cocked to the side as if calculating how to inflict maximal damage, bit off the stem, leaving a tiny stump sticking a short way out of the dirt. The little plant, with its brilliant green jazz-hand leaves, toppled over, its long journey coming to such a sad, inglorious end.
I never did get the chance to test my plans for protecting the fig, for encouraging the shoots and roots over the years to give me fruit, or for overwintering it to protect it from the harsh, arid winters. Nope. Instead, I have to suffer through stories of figs grown and devoured back home, of fig jam and pastries made from crops grown of their meticulously tended trees.
But maybe the squirrel saved both me and fig from a different kind of fate: the fig from the struggle to survive in a hostile climate, and me from the guilt of watching it suffer.
Author: Tina Gianquitto
Herbarium specimen in featured image