We had a bit of a fight on our hands yesterday. Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche and Rose were arguing in our courtyard. Then they started to argue with us too. It was a row about figs. We have a beautiful small fig tree against a south facing wall and this year for the first time it is covered with pale green ‘White Marseilles’ figs.
The girls have developed a taste for them and have been eating those which have fallen or which they can reach but I was determined they weren’t going to have any more and I’m bigger than them I won in the end. I should explain that I’m not a sexist bully and that they are chickens who are already extremely well fed. The fig tree is in their run and they’ve made a den underneath it and were clearly enjoying the windfalls before I turned up to harvest the rest… there was a lot of squawking when they realised I was taking them away rather than picking the fruit for them!
So what is it about figs that makes them so desirable – even to chickens? And what’s their history in our gardens? And what’s it all got to do with Sussex?By way of digression, apparently our chickens are not unique. More than 1200 species of animals including 10% of the world’s birds and nearly all known fruit-bats and dozens of species of primates who like eating the fruit of plants in the Ficus family. This makes the wider fig family an ecological keystone and if you’re interested in knowing more bout that then check out Mike Shanahan’s blog and scientific article, but the domestic fig is just one of more than a thousand species, most of which are tropical – think rubber trees – and humans [and probably chickens] don’t eat most of them. The one we do eat is Ficus carica.
Ficus carica is probably indigenous to Western Asia but has been cultivated all around the Mediterranean since at least 5000BC, recent research suggests that in fact it was perhaps the first plant taken into domestic cultivation as early as 11500BC. It is prominent amongst the trees mentioned in the Bible – not just Adam and Eve using fig leaves as clothing. By the time of Pliny the elder, the great Roman naturalist, devotes 3 chapters of his Natural History [19-21] to the 29 varieties of figs that he knew about and claiming they were “restorative [and] the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.”
So what about Britain? Its possible that figs were introduced by the Romans – and there is a mention in Matthew Paris’s English History that the weather during 1257 was so bad that “apples were scarce, pears more so; figs, beech-nuts, cherries, plums in short all fruits which are preserved in jars were completely spoiled.” But, despite that, its usually thought that figs were not introduced [or possibly reintroduced!] until the 16thc by Cardinal Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary. Pole had spent most of his time in Italy in the 1520s, 30s and 40s and several writers claim he introduced figs to Lambeth Palace Gardens in 1525 but this is unlikely as Pole was abroad between 1523 and 1526, and he was not Archbishop until 1554. Indeed Lambeth Palace think his original tree, another “White Marseilles”, was not planted until 1556.
It is claimed that the tree at Lambeth today is the original, although I’m sure that’s a bit like the proverbial grandfather’s axe. And indeed the axe seems to have been applied liberally in the early 19thc. Our old friend John Claudius Loudon reports that “they were much injured by the severe winter of 1813-4; but the main stems being cut down they recovered so as in 1817 to be in tolerable vigour when Dr Neill and other members of the deputation the Caledonian Horticultural Society inspected the archiepiscopal gardens.”
They were still there in 1826 as “two uncommonly fine fig trees traditionally reported to have been planted by Cardinal Pole, and fixed against that part of the palace believed to have been founded by him. They are of the white Marseilles sort, and still bear delicious fruit … on the south side of the building, in a small private garden, is another tree of the same kind and age.”They were then enormous, over 50ft high, 40 across and 28” around the trunk at ground level. [Thomas Allen, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Lambeth].
However Loudon visited Lambeth Palace gardens himself in 1836 and, apart from saying that Pole planted the figs in 1548, “found the trees had been destroyed some years before, when the palace was undergoing repair; and that the only traces left of them were some young plants raised from cuttings which are now growing in the archbishop’s kitchen-garden.”
“Pole’s tree is no longer in existence” swore the Journal of Horticulture in 1872 “but 5 descendants of it are planted between the buttresses of the library.” But either way, offshoots or repalcements from cuttings the simple fact is the original trees appear to have long gone. I’ve emailed Lambeth Palace to ask for their opinion!
But whenever the first fig was planted interest caught on quite quickly because Loudon says that Archbishop Cranmer planted one at his house in Mitcham [that implies that if Pole was the reintroducer then he had planted his before he became Archbishop because Cranmer was his predecessor].
Thomas Hill in 1579 mentions the ‘Greater Bleu’ and the ‘Dwarf Blue’ as the best to plant in England, but only against a wall, whilst John Gerard agrees that they will grow “but they never cometh to kindly maturity except the tree be planted under a hot wall.” John Parkinson, writing in 1629 mentions the ‘Fig of Algarua’ which has ‘blewish’ fruit of good quality “, “the white ordinary kinde that commeth from Spaine’ and a much less hardy one that needed winter protection, a ‘dwarfe kinde of Figge tree, not growing much higher then to a mans body or shoulders, bearing excellent good Figges and blew.’
By the eighteenth century, there were many more kinds known, their names often revealing their origins, including ‘Brown Ischia’, ‘Black Ischia’, ‘Malta’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Large White Genoa’ and the ‘Brown Naples’ or ‘Brown Turkey. And there’s where Sussex comes in because it was the mid-18thc that the first fig orchard seems to have been established at Tarring, on the outskirts of Worthing.
Legend has it that the trees were grown from cuttings taken from a tree in the gardens of the nearby Old Palace, the originals having been planted by either St Richard of Chichester or St Thomas Becket who are supposed to have bought them back fom Italy.[Good story but both probably rather unlikely].
I hope whoever planted them didn’t follow this contemporary advice.
According to a 19thc local historian Tarring Fig Garden stretched over 3/4 acre and according to the contemporary local historian contained 100 trees by 1830, which yielded about 24,000 figs each year for the market. It was laid out with walks and in 1853 John Warter,another local historian wrote that “nothing could exceed on a hot summers day, the solemn beauty of the fig garden at West Tarring. Before the severe winter of 6 or 7 years ago which destroyed the Gothic arch of the middle walk, its shade was awful and imposing.” Nevertheless it apparently remained a popular destination for visitors, was open all year and even had a teashop by the end of the 19thc. Maurice Williams, an elderly local resident recalled in the local paper that “Men used to cycle from London and were accommodated overnight in a wooden building at the far end of the garden…”[West Sussex Gazette, April 2nd 1998]
One tree carried a plaque proclaiming it “The Remains of The Old Fig Tree Planted by Thomas à Becket – about AD 1162” which no doubt impressed most tourists even if it was, to put it politely, a legend!
Some, however, like the correspondent of the Burgess Hill Mutual Improvement Society reporting on their day trip to Worthing were not convinced!
By 1872 the Fig Garden was in the occupation of Mr Botting who had about 100 trees, but of the Beckett tree, “G”, the author of an article in the Journal of Horticulture in Oc 1872, says that “judging from other large fig trees the ages of which are known, I should conclude it is quite 150 years old.” He goes on to mention the East Nursery run by Mr Bushby in Worthing has another large tree but only about 80 years old.
An article by J.L. about the Sussex fig industry appeared in William Robinson’ magazine The Garden in 1890. The author saying that it was only the past 10 or 15 years that figs had caught on in popularity, and that long-standing market gardeners around Lancing and Worthing who recalled getting only a penny, halfpenny or twopence a dozen for their figs found they could get between 1/6 and 2/6.
There was apparently little systematic planting, and in some cases just a row or two or even a single tree. Even Tarring still had less than 150, including of course the famous one supposedly planted by Thomas Beckett – by then completely dead but left in place. Most of them were Brown Turkey around 12-20 ft high which in the summer cast a shade over the walks. But by then Tarring was not the centre of commercial growing: that was nearby Lancing, “frequently called the Madeira of England.” In North Lancing, sheltered by the South Downs were two fig gardens , again mainly of Brown Turkey trees mostly 40-50 years old. They were run by Thomas Butler who was a regular prize winner including winning the national competition at Crystal Palace in 1888 where he had to compete with fruit grown indoors. These were not the only ones in the area, and JL describes visiting at least three more, comparing their cultivation regime in some detail. Apart from the obvious comments on soil quality, fertilizing, pruning and so on the thing that struck me most was the fact that in at least one garden each fruit was wrapped in a small muslin bag to protect it from starlings. As “JL” said: “This of course entails a considerable amount of labour.”
An account of the Tarring fig garden was also included in an article about growing figs by Owen Thomas, the former gardener to Queen Victoria. Apart from talking about the cultivation regime it shows that Worthing continued to be the centre of commercial fig growing in Britain, despite only being able to get one crop a year, and in 1901 had sent 100,000 fruits to Covent Garden or Brighton markets. For the full article follow the link.
Owen Thomas, who was Queen Victoria’s head gardener, was also to write about figs and Tarring in The Fruit Garden  and there will a couple of posts about him soon.
The Fig Gardens were “still largely patronised” at the beginning of the First World War but what happened to them after that? After all the trees would go on bearing fruit regardless of whether it was picked and marketed. The short answer is I don’t know. Unfortunately the British Library has not yet digitized its holdings of the local newspapers for the Worthing area so I’m unable to check the later history of the gardens. Nor are Ordnance Survey maps much use, as the Fig gardens are not named or shown in any way, although the house, now known as Bishopsgarth is marked.
However I have discovered that in 1989 “the unique garden was lost when the local Council gave planning permission, contrary to case law, for building development on the site. [West Sussex Gazette, April 2nd 1998]
The Council were later found guilty of mal-administration but they had imposed one condition: public access to the fig gardens one day a year. So since then on the last Saturday in June or the first in July the gardens of the old palace, now known as Bishop’s Garth , and the 2 new houses built in its gardens still welcome visitors. You’ve missed this years but look what you missed so put it in your diary for 2018!
There is a short article about the history of the fig and its introduction world-wide in the Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia
And if you’re really interested in Figs another another useful starting point is http://www.planetfig.com/index.html