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Should my figs ooze white sap when I pick them?

ASK THE HORT AGENT

Question Should my figs ooze white sap when I pick them?

Answer No, they should not. A ripe fig should not produce a large drop of white sap on its stem when picked. An unripe (or green) fig will produce a drop of sap when separated from the tree.

The milky white sap is latex. Although all parts of a fig tree contain latex, unripe or nearly ripe figs contain more sap than a ripe fig. The sap from an unripe fig may irritate your throat or cause an upset stomach if you eat too many. Simply pluck a fig from the tree and look at the separation point to determine ripeness (no sap = eat, sap = don’t eat).

Actually, there are several plant families which produce large amounts of milky latex. These families include the euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae), milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), mulberry family (Moraceae), and the dogbane family (Apocynaceae). Figs are in the mulberry family. Other plants with latex sap include sweet potato, poinsettia, dandelion and dumbcane (a houseplant).

Chicle, the milky latex of the sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota), was once thought to be a good source of natural rubber. In 1866, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna delivered a two ton sample of chicle to New York. There he met Thomas Adams. (Santa Anna was a former Mexican president and the famous general who led the Mexican troops in the battle of the Alamo in 1836.) Adams tried unsuccessfully to vulcanize the chicle. (Sulfur was added to latex to make it more durable and weather resistant. This was called vulcanized rubber.).

He remembered a comment by Santa Anna that people in Mexico chewed the chicle latex. Adams came up with the idea of sweetening and flavoring the chicle to make chewing gum. Adams's idea marked the beginning of the chewing gum industry. Adams® brand chewing gums are still sold to this day. Small pieces of chewing gum were named Chiclets.

Fig latex is collected, dried and powdered for use in coagulating milk to make cheese and junket. Latex toxicity can be an occupational hazard for commercial harvesters of figs and latex, but not typically a problem for homeowners.

For info on picking, eating and preserving figs, visit http://www.pickyourown.org/figs.htm or http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/fig.html If you have any other fig questions, then call me at 910-893-7533 or email me at gpierce@harnett.org

Although figs are thought to have originated in western Asia, Adam (from “The Garden of Eden”) is often pictured with a fig leaf covering certain parts of his body. I think Thomas Adams would probably have had more success with fig chewing gum than Adam would have had with fig underwear.

Gary L. Pierce

Horticulture Extension Agent

Harnett County

 
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