David Burke grasps a rusty ladder fixed to the outside of an abandoned 60-foot concrete grain silo towering above a field in Tehama County, California. Using round holes in the concrete as footholds, he climbs ten or more feet, straight into a cluster of dense green foliage. Leaves explode out of gaps in the wall and peek over the lidless roof, rustling in a breeze that threatens to blow Burke off the ladder. Peering into the silo, Burke notes that the trunk is only about six inches in diameter, but it’s one of the tallest fig trees he’s ever seen—and he has seen a lot of them. “Figs are survivors,” Burke says. After plucking a small green fig and returning to earth, he slices it open with a pocketknife and admires the dark red flesh inside. It looks like a miniature watermelon. He hands a piece to his wife, Priscilla, who is recording the discovery for their YouTube channel. The texture is pleasantly crunchy, and the flavor is tangy. “Tastes so good I’m gonna grow it,” Burke tells Priscilla. Reaching through a ground-level opening in the silo, he yanks out a branch and cuts off a twig he will plant on his family’s 11-acre farm just outside Red Bluff, California. With luck, the twig will grow into a clone of the tree in the silo, and produce more of the same delicious fruit. Even for someone like Burke, who has tasted more than his share of figs, this one’s special. He names it Rick’s Fig, in honor of a late cousin.
Burke, a burly, 43-year-old construction worker and former Marine, is a fairly new member of the obsessive, sometimes querulous world of fig hunters, whose numbers have jumped in recent years and reach at least into the hundreds or more. He dreams of working on the farm full time to be closer to his family and transforming the property, now a motley collection of pigs, poultry and fruit trees, into a specialized fig orchard. Until then, he pays the bills as a union operating engineer, pile-driver and casual longshoreman, chasing jobs up and down the West Coast, all while on the lookout for wild fig trees.
A century ago, figs were a major component of California agriculture, cultivated on tens of thousands of acres, mostly in the Central Valley. Seeing the immense potential of these orchards, and with the help of more than 80 Ford tractors, the entrepreneur Jesse Clayton Forkner leveled 12,000 acres of dry land near Fresno beginning in 1910. A layer of dense clay lay just below the surface, so he used 660,000 one-pound charges of dynamite to blast as many holes in the ground and planted a fig tree in nearly every hole. The entire operation cost $6 million. Then he advertised plots of five or ten acres to settlers with no down payment, promising that the fig trees would generate enough money to pay for the land. “Any man who moves upon these fig gardens cannot fail,” he declared.
By the 1920s, California was producing nearly 60,000 tons of figs every year. The fruit (which is technically a bundle of hundreds of fleshy flowers turned inside out) was often consumed as a sweet dried snack wrapped in wax paper and packed in rectangular cartons; the fanciest varieties came in cardboard boxes stamped with gold seals that could just as easily have contained chocolate truffles. Distributors also sold figs preserved in cans—fig pudding joined ketchup and pickles as one of H.J. Heinz & Company’s “57 Varieties” of canned foods and condiments—and people also enjoyed figs in all manner of pastries. In 1919, capitalizing on the fig craze he’d helped to boost, Forkner published a cookbook for aspiring fig connoisseurs that included recipes for fig ice cream, fig soufflé and fig-and-cheese sandwiches. Americans even distilled figs into liqueurs and brewed them into specialty coffees.
But fig cultivation in California began a slow overall decline in the late 1930s. Compared with other fruits, some varieties of figs were labor-intensive to harvest and pack; pickers often had to use dust or salt water to scrub the plant’s rash-inducing milky sap off their skin. Forkner lost his fig orchards during the Great Depression, and despite a temporary reprieve for the domestic industry during World War II, when the importation of foreign figs was greatly reduced, the food’s downfall proceeded apace: By the 1990s and early 2000s, only a few American farmers were growing figs, virtually all of them in California. In recent decades, the closest most Americans came to a fig was likely in Fig Newtons‚ but even that stalwart cookie would feel the decline, with Nabisco creating raspberry, strawberry and other fruit flavors and shortening the name to just Newtons.
While commercial fig harvests were decreasing in California, though, birds, wild pigs and other animals kept spreading fig seeds. Like the tree sprouting from the center of that abandoned grain silo, these hardy plants have since rooted themselves in all kinds of bizarre spots: in drainage ditches, behind strip malls, on the edges of long-abandoned farms. Established varieties of figs, such as Black Missions and White Adriatics, are propagated through cuttings: identical clones of one another that all look and taste exactly the same. But every fig grown from a seed is a combination of its parents and could constitute its own new variety, depending on how unusual it is. Such seed dispersal has created a genetic melting pot that could bring forth new varieties with unique flavors and traits.
Aficionados would love a breed with firmer skin that can withstand long-distance shipping, for instance. Historically, fig breeders at places such as the University of California at Riverside have carefully selected for such traits, in a process that requires years of exacting work. Searching for beneficial mutations in the wild is more akin to playing the lottery—and hunters don’t need any scientific training to hit the jackpot. “The majority of [wild figs] are not worth my time,” says Eric Durtschi, a Santa Barbara fig hunter and hobbyist grower who has evaluated over 750 unique seedlings. “But I have found some that are just truly spectacular, that are as good, or better, than some of the very, very top figs that have been growing for hundreds and hundreds of years coming out of Europe.”
The wild fig has seeded its own human ecosystem of hunters, collectors and connoisseurs, complete with fan conventions and online trading. This fig frenzy has pushed up prices for valuable new specimens. About five years ago, the fig hunter Doug Scofield discovered a green-skinned fig with raspberry-colored innards growing about an hour north of Sacramento. He named it Thermalito, after the town where he’d found it, and brought it to a fig convention in 2017, where it received rave reviews. “I felt like I was eating jelly out of a jar,” one taste tester enthused. More recently, a pair of Thermalito cuttings sold for $400 on the auction site FigBid.com. “I’m admittedly biased,” Scofield wrote, “but when you consider taste, productivity and resistance to splitting and souring, I think that it is one of the best overall figs out there for our growing conditions.”
Even as the sprawling commercial fig orchards of America’s past disappear, thousands of smaller nurseries and hobbyist farms have popped up, planting a great diversity of figs. This trend is fueled in part by the farm-to-table and eat-local and back-to-heirloom-variety food movements, to be sure, but there is no ignoring the importance of the fig tree’s unusual hardiness and versatility. An established fig tree can survive with minimal rain and no irrigation, and it’s the plant’s toughness that makes it so thrilling to hunt.
The race to find and claim new varieties benefits consumers, among others, but it has also created competition and rancor in the fig community, which tends to be prickly and tightly guarded, with some of its eminences looking down their nose at zealous newcomers like Burke. Still, he’s all in, having discovered and mapped more than 1,650 fig trees between Disneyland and the Oregon border, though exactly what it means to “discover” a wild or just forgotten tree is often a matter of dispute.
“Daddy, daddy, look! It’s a baby fig tree.”
On a rainy Sunday morning, I accompanied Burke and his 7-year-old daughter, Cadhla (a Gaelic name prounced “Kayla”), on a fig-hunting excursion to an abandoned homestead down the road from their farm. Her excitement had her practically vibrating in her boots as he lifted her over a locked gate. Then she bounded over to a spindly fig seedling that both of us had missed.
“Dang you, girl. My little fig hunter,” Burke said, and gave her a high-five. She smiled and pointed out that leaves on the same tree had different numbers of fingerlike lobes, or outcroppings. Burke seemed to swell with pride at her botanical perceptiveness. By 5 p.m., Burke had driven us to more than a dozen sites, and it was starting to get dark. His daughter, falling asleep in the back seat of the truck, begged to go home. He promised we would stop after visiting one more tree, which turned into two more, then three. Eventually I lost count. We didn’t get home until after 7:30 p.m.
Burke says he’s hunted and eaten wild figs since he was a kid, but the family’s present-day fig fascination began in the spring of 2019, when Burke started bringing home wild specimens he’d gathered during his commutes to and from construction jobs in San Francisco and other cities in Northern California. When Burke finds a particularly delicious or hardy fig, he marks its location on his phone and cuts off a few twigs to plant on his farm, where he has amassed a collection of thousands of cuttings. He usually names each tree based on where he found it or dresses it up with Italian (Mora Nascosta) or Spanish (Corazón de la Bahía) for fun when offering the fruit to local restaurants and selling cuttings on his website, Thefighunter.shop. He propagates the cuttings, and they grow in black plastic pots that surround the house like a moat. The family’s two Great Pyrenees like to curl up next to the pots at night, under the stars. Other trees are planted on hillsides that Burke has been terracing with a rented earthmover. Figs spill into the house, too. Containers and vases with cuttings and fruit sit on side tables, on the piano, next to the family’s small aquarium. The Burkes have tracked down figs that taste like candy (they cultivate them as “Jolly Ranchers”), figs with flesh so soft you can spread them like jam (“Gold Rush”) and figs the size of a fist that weigh up to a pound each (“George’s Giant”).
Sometimes Burke’s obsession leads him into dicey situations. When he returned at a later date to harvest more fig cuttings from the tree growing in the silo, he found that the owner’s family had hacked off all of the lower branches, forcing him to climb to the upper canopy, where he hugged the ladder and fought off dizziness while slicing off a few twigs. The silo’s owner had given him permission to take cuttings for free in this case; Burke sometimes offers cash for a particularly valuable fig variety. Then there’s Tony Mendonca, a 90-year-old retired butcher who has made David a gift of many cuttings from a massive White Adriatic on his property near Red Bluff. On the last day of my visit, we rattled on his truck’s raised suspension along a potholed dirt road on the edge of a cliff above a lake, past a sign warning “Enter at Your Own Risk” and through a forest of leaning tree trunks, charred by wildfire, that threatened to collapse on top of us. We failed to find a fig tree, and the rough terrain caused the vehicle’s pressure hose to blow. We spent hours waiting for a tow truck in the cold night with only a handful of overripe figs we had picked earlier that day to sustain us until we were rescued by Priscilla in an SUV filled with three exhausted children.
Priscilla Burke, a former paralegal, left law school in 2019 to dedicate herself to the farm. To supplement her husband’s construction income, she blends the figs they find into jam and sells it to restaurants and at farmers markets, along with the pickles, salsa and fig-infused sausage that she produces at an industrial kitchen she rents. The transition between careers, she says, was more natural than it might seem: Her parents worked in the restaurant industry in Napa Valley, and she spent much of her childhood learning to prepare food. When David needs to decide which figs are worth growing, he relies on Priscilla’s expert palate.
He hopes one day to sell thousands of pounds of fruit from his own orchard to high-end restaurants and grocers—he figures such establishments would pay him enviable prices in the San Francisco Bay Area. But some cuttings need to grow for many years before they yield a good crop. So the Burkes looked for other ways to monetize their hobby. They tapped into a passionate community of fig lovers who were eager to buy unique seedlings like the ones they’d discovered. That’s when the trouble started.
Figs have inspired plenty of rivalry in the past. The earliest records of the edible fig, Ficus carica, date to the Sumerian period, 4,500-odd years ago in Mesopotamia. Indeed, the fig tree may have been the first plant cultivated by humans and holds a prominent place in religious history. Some rabbinical scholars even suggest that the tree of knowledge that sent Adam and Eve on the path to perdition may not have been an apple at all, but a fig. The Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment in India under a fig tree, and Odysseus pulled himself from the whirlpool of Charybdis by grabbing onto an overhanging fig anchored to a rock. The Phoenicians and other ancient fig hunters would select their favorite varieties and then sell them throughout the Mediterranean.
California, with a climate similar to the warm, fertile lands where Ficus carica evolved, had a small but thriving fig industry in the 19th century, but growers couldn’t figure out how to cultivate the most succulent variety: the golden, sugary Smyrna fig of Turkey. The Turks, meanwhile, weren’t eager to hand over cuttings to the Americans and create a new competitor. But in 1886 a California horticulturalist named W.C. West obtained specimens through an intermediary, then falsely labeled them as licorice root and smuggled them onto a steamship. Eventually they arrived in Fresno.
To West’s chagrin, though, the trees wouldn’t bear edible fruit. It took a horticultural scientist from the California Academy of Sciences, who even consulted ancient Roman texts for clues, to figure out the Turks’ secret: Smyrna figs needed to be pollinated by a small wasp (a mere .06 inches) named Blastophaga psenes, which delivers pollen from a different tree, the inedible caprifig. An agent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture collected these wasps in Italy and Algeria and shipped them back home in 1899, where the figs delivered their promise.
At the industry’s peak in the 1930s, California growers were cultivating more than 50,000 acres of Smyrna and other fig varieties. Since then, as figs became less of a sound investment, many farmers have been forced to dig up their figs to make way for more profitable plants such as oranges, grapes and nuts. The crop has rebounded a bit in the past few years and is back up to 9,300 acres in California, according to the state’s Fig Advisory Board—a number that doesn’t include the untold thousands of wild fig trees seeded by birds and pollinated by wasps.
While many fig hunters are delighted about wild fig proliferation, some conservationists are not. The hardy trees can grow practically anywhere, but they thrive near water, creating dense thickets along riverbanks and streams that can shade out native plants, causing Santa Barbara sedge, for example, to wither; the bushy, grasslike plants prevent erosion, and indigenous Americans historically used their roots to weave baskets and ropes.
That tension sometimes puts people like Burke at cross-purposes with scientists like Katherine Holmes, who believes figs should be eradicated from vulnerable riparian corridors. Holmes is a restoration ecologist for the Solano Resource Conservation District in the Sacramento Valley. She doesn’t hunt figs—she hunts down figs. With the help of her field crew, “I have killed thousands and thousands and thousands of figs, probably, if you add up all the little saplings in a grove,” she tells me. “I can definitely smell them well before I can see them.”
Over the last century, land development and flood control measures have destroyed roughly 95 percent of California’s riparian forests, which had been a uniquely lush habitat in an otherwise dry state whose native plants include currants, willows, wild rose and Pacific blackberry. Now, Holmes says, the density of fig trees in some areas is approaching a tipping point that will enable wild figs to proliferate exponentially and perhaps even wipe out nearby native plants crucial to California’s ecosystem. She worries that people like Burke, who plant figs on their property, don’t understand the threat.
Burke is aware that he and other fig hunters may be in a race against the state’s ecologists. During my visit, he took me to a park on the Sacramento River where state workers had cut down some fig trees more than a decade ago. The trees had now grown back. Burke sliced off a few branches to plant on the farm just in case someone showed up here to finish them off.
Not all scientists are as concerned as Holmes. The nonprofit California Invasive Plant Council classifies Ficus carica as a “moderate” threat, unlike the “high” threat posed by yellow starthistle blanketing much of the state’s grassland. John Preece, the recently retired research leader at the Agriculture Department’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository, in Davis, California, doesn’t believe the fig should be categorized as invasive. “I think it’s easy to control,” Preece says. “You can cut it out, you can herbicide it. I don’t think it’s that difficult.”
More difficult to control may be dissension among fig hunters themselves.
What was once a tiny group of hobbyists has become a booming subculture, with all the usual complications. A Facebook group named Fig Addiction boasts more than 18,000 members, while more than 6,000 people frequent Ourfigs.com, a forum for growers.
Burke attended his first hobbyist convention, the West Coast Fig Fest, in August 2019. He expected to be hailed as a new collector. Instead, some in the community pointed out that local growers like him were reintroducing existing varieties under new names, thus diluting the value of everyone else’s cuttings. One critic warned growers like Burke that they were going to “blow up someone else’s sales and start a war.”
“It’s not that we believe them to necessarily be new tree varieties,” Burke tried to explain to his critics; the names he’d given these figs for the most part simply indicated historical or geographical significance. Burke pledged to continue to share samples of his trees and to post the locations where he found them, but some say he didn’t do the one thing others in the community encouraged most—be patient and ask for feedback from other enthusiasts who could help him determine if a seedling was unique before branding and selling it.
Earlier that summer, he had discovered a greenish-gold fig with pink innards ringed by purple, an unusual rainbow pattern that caused an instant sensation when he livestreamed the find on Facebook. He showed it to Lee Ann Conner, an experienced fig hunter from Redding, California, who, like Burke, sells her discoveries on FigBid.com. She called it “the find of the century” and offered to nurture some of the cuttings and return them once they established roots.
A few months later, while checking the FigBid site, Burke saw that someone from the East Coast was selling what looked like his rainbow fig cuttings—the same person, in fact, who had warned him of “war” at the fig fest. The seller had given the fig a new name but was using the same photos Burke had shown to Conner. He asked her what was going on; Burke says Conner acknowledged she’d sent cuttings to a seller to test how the fig grew in other climates. She says the East Coast seller had used Burke’s photos by accident.
Burke didn’t see it that way. “I’m pretty hurt by this,” he texted her. He was out of town on a construction job, so Priscilla created a thread on the Ourfigs.com forum titled “There’s a thief in our midst.” Why should someone else profit from their discovery, using their photos, she asked? Whether or not the Burkes had a noteworthy new variety on their hands, they felt that Conner had betrayed them by shipping samples to a rival grower without their permission. The seller took down the listing and pictures and apologized for having used Burke’s photographs, but the argument escalated and moderators locked the thread.
After that controversy, Conner said she started to notice something strange: Whenever she shared photos or locations of fig trees she discovered, “a week later they’d be completely cut down.” The same thing had been happening to other fig growers for years.
“People even joke about fig mafias,” Conner says. But she’s not so sure it should be a joke.
Burke harbors similar suspicions and compares the situation to the Bone Wars, a period in the late 1800s when two rival American fossil hunters raced to identify new dinosaur species, sabotaging each other’s dig sites and reputations in an attempt to secure renown in the annals of paleontology.
Of course, both Burke and Conner could be mistaking routine maintenance for opportunistic vandalism: Restoration ecologists like Holmes and workers at the California Department of Transportation regularly cut back fig trees on public property.
Whatever the cause of Conner’s missing figs, Burke says he’s lost some trust in other hunters. These days, he guards his discoveries more carefully. Before showing me his fig tree map for the first time, he contemplated having me sign a nondisclosure agreement.
Despite the infighting, the wild fig hunters know they have the potential to preserve one of humankind’s most storied food species at a crucial time, when climate change threatens the survival of so many plants, animals and insects.
The closest thing you’ll find to a living gene bank of fig trees is an orchard at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository that grows more than 200 genetically unique varieties of figs and caprifigs. Actual seed banks don’t collect figs, not even Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a trove of genetic material buried on a frozen island in the Arctic Circle. The vault doesn’t collect samples, and Åsmund Asdal, a coordinator at Svalbard, says they’ve never received fig seeds—besides which, Asdal says, because of the seeds’ mixed-up genetics, one can’t guarantee what kind of fruit a given seed would bear. Further, fig wasps can’t be preserved, and if you can’t preserve the wasp, there’s no point in preserving the seed, says Finn Kjellberg, a research director at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology, in Montpellier, France, who studies the coexistence of fig trees and fig wasps. For most species of fig that require pollination, he says, only one or two species of wasp are capable of pollinating it. The tree and the insect have been bound together in a symbiotic relationship since the dawn of humanity.
Burke wants to bind his family to that ecological history by cultivating figs that his children will one day inherit and, he hopes, make a living with—just as Burke found value in the wild figs left behind by 19th-century American horticulturalists, who, in turn, became rich off of figs they acquired from Mediterranean growers who cultivated them for thousands of years.
“It’s a treasure hunt,” Burke says. “And at the end you might be rewarded with something special. But the real reward is the time you spend doing it.”