This is a story about a journey of fig variety known as Smyrna from Turkey to California. But before we get to the journey, let’s see what Smyrna variety is and where it grows.
What Are Smyrna Figs?
Unlike common fig varieties, the Smyrna fig requires pollination to produce fruit. The fruits of Smyrna fig trees will fall from the trees before they are fully matured if they are not properly pollinated.
Caprifigs, along with the fig wasps they house, are often placed alongside commercial Smyrna fig trees in order to assure pollination.
Smyrna fig name is often used to describe the type of fig that requires pollination. However, several other varieties act the same worldwide but are almost unknown in the US.
Smyrna fig tree is about average in everything, and it doesn’t differ too much from most common fig varieties.
The Smyrna figs themselves are average to above average in size. They are colored in shades of light brown, and I consider them above average in sweetness. Most describe them with a satisfying vanilla, nutty flavor. However, that flavor depends a lot on growing conditions and dryness.
Where Do Smyrna Figs Come From?
Unlike what most people believe, Smyrna fig is not a single variety. It’s a group of very similar varieties originating from the town in Turkey named Izmir, historically known as Smyrna.
People of Smyrna loved dried figs, so they cultivated fig varieties that were, at the time, perfect to dry. All of their historical varieties slowly blended and became similar to each other. That’s why the world didn’t need to know them by more than one name, “Smyrna.”
They are sometimes called Calimyrna figs when cultivated in California. However, contrary to popular belief, Smyrna and Calimyrna are not actually the same thing.
Smyrna figs are a group of varieties, while Calimyrna is only one of Smyrna fig varieties, known in Turkey as the Sarilop or Lob Injir fig.
Where Are Smyrna Figs Grown Today?
Smyrna figs are commercially grown in Turkey, Greece, and California. It is present in several other countries but only non-commercially as they don’t succeed very easily as singled out trees without wide-scale pollination.
Most fruit trees that require pollination are pollinated by bees more than any other flying insect. The fact that Smyrna figs require a specific wasp species, called Blastophaga, to be pollinated makes them difficult to pollinate as single trees.
The chances of a colony of these wasps kept living in the area are very low, even if you have a caprifig tree right next to the Smyrna tree.
Blastophaga wasps are not naturally found anywhere except in a few Mediterranean countries, and that means you need to introduce them to the area where you want to grow Smyrna figs.
How a Smyrna Fig Variety Came to the US and Became Known As Calimyrna
Prior to 1850, the only fig variety growing in California was the Mission fig, which was brought to the state by Spanish Missionaries in the 1700s.
California nurserymen and orchardists felt that if they could identify and nurture the appropriate kind of dried fig, they could take over the market. Ordering and even going to the Middle East’s growing regions, particularly Turkey’s Meander Valley, to locate and cut cuttings was a part of the process.
The difficulty with the Smyrna figs was two-fold. The absence of established and agreed-upon scientific understanding regarding fig pollination or caprification made it difficult to actually cultivate the Smyrna fig after cuttings were obtained.
G.P. Rixford, who was then the commercial manager of the Evening Bulletin newspaper in San Francisco, brought the first documented cuttings of Smyrna figs into California in 1880. Eventually, stories began to arrive from all throughout California of lush, healthy trees that had all shed their immature, young fruit.
Smyrna Fig Pollination Troubles in the US
To solve this issue, in 1886, Fancher Nursery dispatched William West, their new foreman, to study how the Turks managed to grow Smyrna figs and report back Mr. West disguised himself as a hunter and went to the Turkish countryside.
He collected about 10 tons of plant material, not all of which was fig, and only sent roughly half of it back to the United States due to the high cost. California could produce a high-quality dried fig that could compete on the international market while also dominating the home market, which accounted for almost 9 million tons of dried figs in 1890.
BM. Lelong served as Secretary of the California State Board of Agriculture from 1891 to 1892. In horticultural circles, there was a lot of debate about whether figs required pollination or not. California producers solely employed conventional fig cultivation methods, not Smyrna fig growth methods.
George Roeding, James Shinn, Gustav Eisen, and Walter T. Swingle were persuaded that the Smyrna fig could be successfully cultivated in California but that it required to be pollinated.
Roeding began using a toothpick to insert Capri fig pollen into the eyes of immature Smyrna figs in 1892. The Capri or wild fig, which has inedible fruit, was necessary for Smyrna pollination to work. Luckily, it was accidentally introduced to the state in 1865.
Blastophaga wasps, which reside in Capri figs and emerge exactly when the Smyrna fig requires pollination, are responsible for this pollination in nature. The wasp penetrates the young fig through the ostiole, or eye, in search of a suitable location to deposit its eggs, bringing with it the pollen required for fertilization.
Swingle was in Italy in 1896 and had been convinced of the necessity to introduce the Blastophaga into the Smyrna fig orchards in the United States, despite some prevalent opinions to the contrary. With Walter Swingle’s employment as an agricultural explorer for the United States in 1898, the fig wasp was first introduced into California.
Blastophaga was sent to California from Algiers’ Botanical Gardens, where the caprifigs ripened several weeks before they did in some other parts, to give Californian Smyrna figs the best chance of pollination.
Soon after, Calimyrna was adopted as the name for the most significant type of Smyrna in the United States. The variety is known in Turkey as the Sarilop or Lop Injir.