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Have a Tree? Give a Fig. 

Maggie Grant proffers a Celeste fig from a tree at her Durham home.

Photo by Ben McKeown

Maggie Grant proffers a Celeste fig from a tree at her Durham home.

It's August and that means fig season is upon us. For some homeowners, that represents more than just the return of the sticky fruit that fills Nabisco's Newtons.

Look around. In Durham's residential neighborhoods, nearly every block boasts at least a few robust trees bushy with the distinctive hand-shaped leaves. Starting in late July or early August, the fruit begins to ripen on the tree, turning from green to pink, purple, or brown, and becoming soft and sweet.

Fig trees are popular with homeowners in the area "probably because you don't have to do anything to take care of them," says Cheralyn Berry, an agriculture agent with the Durham County Cooperative Extension. Ficus carica, the common fig tree, grows very well here in the Piedmont—particularly Celeste, a cold-hardy variety that flourishes in a range of soils. It doesn't need pruning, herbicide, or even fertilizer: the plant is incredibly prolific.

But if you've got one of these exuberant trees in your yard, that bountiful harvest can be something of a nuisance.

"You always know when the figs are getting ripe, because people start stopping by," says Maggie Grant, who lives in Old North Durham. She's used to seeing passersby pause at the fig tree in her yard to pluck a few—or more. "We've had people with buckets come and pick them. It's strange when you have people in your yard taking a whole container of the fruit and not asking once."

Technically, even fruit that's hanging over the sidewalk belongs to the tree's owner, according to Durham city attorney Patrick Baker. But Grant, like many other fig tree owners, says she doesn't mind people picking her figs—after all, the trees produce a lot of fruit, and a person can appreciate only so much fig cake, fig bread, sautéed figs with goat cheese, or stuffed figs. "We have more than we can eat," says Laura Ballance, whose Duke Park yard is home to perhaps the mother of all fig trees.

click to enlarge Old North Durham and other parts of the city are rife with fig trees. - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • Old North Durham and other parts of the city are rife with fig trees.

It can be an issue of etiquette. If you can reach the fruit from the street or the sidewalk, fine. But maybe don't enter someone's yard without asking. "And don't bring containers," says Peter Eversoll, who has surprised pickers outside of his Walltown home with bags full of his figs.

Online, a nationally crowdsourced map at fallingfruit.org shows five fig trees rooted on public property within Durham city limits, ripe for the picking.

If you simply can't help yourself, follow the lead of Grant's neighbor. Arriving home from work one evening, Grant caught the neighbor in her yard red-handed. "She left, and then came back shortly after and brought us a jar of jam that she'd made"—made entirely from the "stolen" figs, of course. Grant wasn't upset, but then a sweet gift never hurts.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sticky Fingers"

  • “You always know when the figs are getting ripe, because people start stopping by.”

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