NATCHEZ NATURALIST NEWSLETTER:
July 15, 2001
FIG-PICKING TIME AT LAUREL HILL
Our first ripe figs appeared about a week ago but this week they really began coming on.
Now each morning I spend over an hour picking figs. I've invented a fig-picking tool
consisting of a bamboo pole about 2.5 inches in diameter (I'll tell you about our thickets
of Giant Bamboo someday... ) split at one end, with the split parts held open by a small
rock. Place a twig-hanging fig inside that split, twist the pole a little, and the twig
tumbles into the hollow bamboo.
I almost feel guilty picking figs. They are so sweet, so soft you don't even have to chew
them, they are beautiful to look at with their burgundy color and scattered flecks of pure
white latex, yet we have done nothing to deserve this bounty other than to let the trees
grow where they wish. Usually fig trees don't even require pruning during the course of a
year. And if you want more fig trees, you just bend down a lower branch of an older tree,
heap dirt over the branch's middle section, let the buried part produce roots during the
summer, in the fall cut the branch away from the mother tree, and then you have a new tree
with roots, ready to plant.
There's even more to the fig to make a straight-laced fellow feel funny. For one thing,
figs are in the same family as the marijuana plant. For another, fig sex is simply
For, the thing we call a fig really is not a standard fruit. Technically, a fruit is the
item into which the female part of a flower, the pistil, develops when its ovules are
fertilized by the male sex germ in pollen. The pistil with ovules mature into a fruit with
seeds. This is not at all the way figs develop.
at my nature-study site I've placed a picture of a cut-open Laurel Hill fig. At that
picture you'll see that a fig is a fleshy, hollow receptacle bearing flowers on its
INTERIOR surface. When we eat a fig, we are eating a fleshy, vegetative receptacle
enclosing hundreds of immature flowers.
In the wild, mainly in the tropics, there are about 2,000 fig species, and often a
particular wasp species pollinates a particular wild fig species. Our domesticated fig
trees have lost their ability to reproduce sexually. Flowers inside the domestic fig do
not mature, do not get pollinated and do not produce viable seeds. Our edible-fig trees
can no longer survive as a species without people producing rooted woody cuttings.
However, for as long as there are people like myself filled with admiration for this
wonderful plant, those rooted woody cuttings will be made. I am rooting some right now and
this fall I will set them out. I just wonder that every house in Mississippi is not
surrounded by fig trees.
On the gravel road between here and the plantation headquarters Kudzu vines encroach from
embankments on both sides of the road and if cars didn't constantly run over them the
vines would soon smoother the entire road beneath a sea of greenery. Each day on this road
I smell the sweet odor of grape juice, for the Kudzu is flowering, and that's the way
purple Kudzu flowers smell. Kudzu is Pueraria lobata, a member of the Bean Family.
A while back I read a newspaper article saying that Kudzu vines arise from a starchy
underground root "big as a small car," and that this root could be eaten.
The next day I visited our Kudzu with my shovel. I found that the vines may root in
several spots, and none of the roots I followed deep into the ground ever showed any
promise of connecting with a tuber "big as a small car." After a couple of hours
I gave up, but maybe someday a Newsletter reader finding himself or herself bulldozing a
Kudzu zone will have better luck, and if that is the case, please let me know what you
The book "Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America" by M.L. Fernald says that
the root usually forks into several branches, has a tough outer coat, but is fleshy
within. Moreover it says that the fleshy portion of each of the main branches can be from
four to five feet long and as thick as a man's arm. I find this much more believable than
it's being a car-size tuber, but even still this would amount to considerable eating.
Well, the Kudzu vine must be doing something with all the carbohydrate it is
photosynthesizing with those acres of leaves held flat against the sun.
Fernald describes how to prepare Kudzu root segments: "... they are cleaned, cut in
pieces, crushed, and the starch washed out and allowed to settle to the bottom of the tub.
The starch is then purified by repeated washings and when dried is a fine, pure white
article, which is much esteemed for food."
My family in Kentucky writes of a terrible outbreak of Japanese Beetles in their area,
saying that their gardens and orchards are simply disappearing. In late July of last year
I traveled by bus from New York to Kentucky and in many places in Pennsylvania, Ohio and
Kentucky from the bus window I saw enormous damage, unbelievable damage, in certain
places. Today I think I saw a Japanese Beetle here, though it is not supposed to be here
yet. My eyes were blurry from sweat and my glasses were fogged as the bug zipped by, so I
am hoping I was mistaken.
The map at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/housing/japanese-beetle/jbmap.gif
shows that Japanese Beetles are not supposed to be in thispart of the US... yet. They were
introduced into the US in the Northeast, so during recent years their distribution has
been expanding outward, toward our area. Apparently there is nothing to keep them from
eventually reaching here. They occur in several south-Alabama counties so they can
obviously survive our heat.
During last year's visit to Kentucky the beetles were eating up my grandmother's garden so
she asked a neighbor to set up his "bug trap" next to her garden. The trap
consisted of a bag on a pole. Above the bag was a small, vertically held yellow board.
Apparently the yellow board was saturated with a Japanese-Beetle sex hormone, a pheromone,
which attracted any Japanese Beetle in the area -- and only Japanese Beetles.
"Attract" is too tame a word. The moment the apparatus was set up, every few
seconds a Japanese Beetle would divebomb out of nowhere, thud against the yellow board,
fall into the bag, and be unable to climb from the bag because of the bag's slick interior
surface. In five minutes the bag was filled with live, leg-wiggling Japanese Beetles,
which could then be disposed of.
I have seldom seem such a powerful demonstration of the sexual attraction, and the plague
of beetles was more impressive than even my current plague of mosquitoes. Woe to us when
the Japanese Beetles do reach our gardens and orchards. Apparently our magnolias, dogwoods
and oaks are not bothered much, but our apple trees, crape myrtles and roses are listed
among the ten most favored Japanese Beetle foods.
Newsletter subscribers in the Natchez area should learn to identify these metallic
bluish-green creatures with coppery wing covers. They are pictured at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/housing/japanese-beetle/jbeetle.html
The recent rains have let pools filled not only with mosquito wiggletails but also many
pools are just working with tadpoles, or polywogs, which are of course immature frogs.
Frogs lay eggs in water, the eggs hatch into tadpoles, then finally the tadpoles
metamorphose into frogs.
The metamorphosis is something worth watching, even if you think you know all about it.
The most interesting thing is to watch the younger tadpoles, which initially look like
tiny catfish, grow legs as they absorb their tails, and at the same time changes from
being vegetarians with very long gut, slender guts, to carnivorous frogs with very short,
This Wednesday I found a tadpole of the Southern Leopard Frog, I think, with its back legs
just beginning to appear. I put it into a jar of water, brought it home, placed it on my
scanner, and scanned him! The results were pretty good, so if you want to see a tadpole
which still has its tail, but also has tiny legs sprouting, go to my nature-study site's
frog page at http://www.backyardnature.net/frogs.htm#t
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,