I have met many gardeners over the past years, each one with a particular skill and passion for at least one area or type of gardening. But many are also collectors. They collect tools, books, or plants that have a personal attachment to them or bring back a favorite memory for them. I am no exception to this, my peppermint plants (Mentha x piperita) were transported from my Grandparents farm in North East Pa to my home in Tiffin, but that is not my greatest obsession, which is reserved for the fabulous Fig (Ficus carica).
You see my heritage is a blend of true German and Italian, I love both equally as they both have strong and endearing qualities about them. But I love the Italian love for life and their home gardening skills. Every Italian has a small garden with their favorite tomato, basil, garlic, and the family fig. It’s those family figs that call to me. Many people do not believe that you can grow figs in North West Ohio, but I know better. The Chicago Hardy Fig and the Brown Turkey are two that are very popular varieties which can be grown into zone 5, a full zone colder than we experience in the Lima and surrounding area. But let me get back to my personal obsession.
I collect Italian figs, figs that can only be obtained when I show them how interested I am in the background and the history of how their family came to this country, carrying their favorite family heirloom fig. The latest fig I have been able to find is from Evangeline Road in Cleveland Ohio while working with America’s Best Farms to create community gardens for children and seniors. You can find out more information about America’s Best Farms at http://www.americasbestfarm.com/. While touring the sites and discovering the native plants available, Nicholas and I discussed the neighborhood of Italian immigrants that worked the steel mills in years past. I asked Nicholas if he knew of any that still had their family figs around; his wide grin and big smile told me that he did. We walked a short distance around the corner and there was a tired old fig, chopped and burnt from a fire, not showing much sign of life. But I had hope. Taking two small cuttings close to the roots, I left Nicholas and the gardens with cuttings in hand, anxious to nurture them back to health.
You see, I do not save fig trees, I save memories. I save memories of families, their ups and downs, their love for their homeland and their passion for their new country. This particular fig tree came from Campobasso Italy. Campobasso is located in the Molise region of south central Italy and is the name of both a province (Provincia di Campobasso), as well as the capital city (Comune di Campobasso). The city has a population of 50,000 and is located in the high basin of the Biferno River, surrounded by the Sannio and Matese mountains. Campobasso is renowned for the craftsmanship of blades (including scissors and knives), historically documented since the 14th century.
This is not the first fig tree that I have collected, although I have seven different varieties of figs, only three are Italian figs. The first collected was the Corleone fig, from Corleone the Province of Palermo in Sicily, Italy which several Mafia bosses originated along with the fictitious characters in the Godfather movie series. The second of the Italian figs originated in Ventotene Italy, a tiny island off the west coast of Italy which many Roman Emperors used to banish their subjects to that did not share their personal views. So you see, every fig tells a story, you just have to be interested to listen.
Vince Kirchner, a certified permaculture instructor and an Ohio State University Master Gardener, is owner of Great Lakes Permaculture, Tiffin.