Fig tree
Unripe figs on a branch of a fig tree in Northampton County. Photo credit: Jean E Flynn

"The earth yields kindly the necessaries of life, "hog and hominy," Nature provides the delicacies, so the peninsular Virginian places a beautiful trust in Providence and waits for the fig to drop into his mouth."  - from A Peninsular Canaan by Pyle Howard
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
May, 1879

Figs are not native to Northampton County but have been naturalized here. They are easy to maintain and need little to no maintenance. Figs are propagated from cuttings and so each tree is in effect a clone. Figs are originally from the Mediterranean and Asia, but have found a home and beloved place in the hearts of our people for their delicious taste and prolific fruits which ripen from August through mid-September. Figs are considered the first cultivated fruit, with fossil records dating back to at least 9200 B.C. 

Figs in a basket
Ripe figs are ready to be processed. Photo credit: Jean E Flynn  

 Figs begin to ripen in late July and early August and will continue to bear fruit until mid September. The favorite way to eat them is right off the tree. Dried figs are another favorite way to preserve them as well as making them into preserves, adding them to desserts or even savory dishes and salads or paired with sharp cheeses. A recipe for Fig ribbon cake dates back to the 1880's. Fig Ribbon Cake Recipe
The Brown Turkey fig (Ficus carica) grows well in Coastal Virginia. Fig trees growing wild or cultivated in Northampton likely come from Hog Island figs. Unbelievably, these trees thrive near saltwater! 



Hog Island is a barrier island eight miles off the Atlantic coastline of Northampton County, Virginia. The Hog Island fig evolved from figs brought to the Barrier Islands in the 1660's. The figs are caramel colored when ripe and the leaves resemble human hands. The community on Hog Island was known as Broadwater. In 1933 and 1936 a series of powerful hurricanes devasted the community. It was agreed the people could no longer stay. So, they left the island by floating their houses on barges across the marsh to the mainland. They brought cuttings of the figs trees with them to transplant into their new gardens. 
(Visit our What's  A Barrier Island? webpage for more information about the Barrier Islands.)

In The Surprising Resilience of the Hog Island Fig, Rachel Kester gives "A quick primer on the Hog Island fig: The name actually encompasses two recognized varieties. One, known as the Higby fig, is prized for its sweet, nectary tang. The Higby is related to the silver leaf fig, which was first documented in Cape Charles in the 1940s, although it could possibly have been around since the 1600s, making it potentially one of the oldest strands left in the South.

The second variety of the Hog Island fig is tinier (it measures about one inch all around), but has the more outsized reputation. Commonly referred to as the Grover Cleveland fig, it earned its fame, and its name, with an appearance at an 1892 feast thrown for President Cleveland."

A President's Seal of Approval

Grover Cleveland exhibit
Photos and information can be viewed in the County admin building as part of the historical display. The text reads: 
Exmore Railroad Station, c. 1890
This is the building President Grover Cleveland saw when his special train brought him to Exmore for recreational visits to the famous Broadwater Club on Hog Island. He was driven in the family surrey by Henry Clay Johnson to the steamboat dock at Willis Wharf. Mr. Johnson was a son-in-law of Edward Willis, for whom the village is named and the father of William E. Johnson, whose store was the successor to E.L. Willis and Co.
The steamer Sunshine took the President to Hog Island, where among his
hunting and fishing guides were Captain Eli Doughty, his son Henry and Thomas Major Doughty.
Since Grover Cleveland is considered both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, Exmore, Willis Wharf and Hog Island got two presidents for the price of one!

The Hog Island fig gained some renown in 1892 when President Grover Cleveland made a visit to the Broadwater Club on Hog Island for a vacation of waterfowl hunting. The best cooks on the island served up a Thanksgiving feast Eastern Shore style perhaps with oyster stuffing and Hayman sweet potatoes but definitely figs for dessert. A report in the New York Herald from Nov. 25, 1892 quoted President Cleveland, “The repast has never been excelled on Broadwater (Hog) Island. At dessert some preserved figs, raised on the island and the club’s special pride, were served.”

"It’s rumored that Cleveland loved the figs’ rich, floral-honey tones and that a small fig tree was later sent to the White House as a gift," says Kester. 

Throughout the County old homesteads that have succumbed to nature can be recognized by the flourishing fig trees where gardens once stood. A few fig trees still grow on Hog Island, now a barrier island belonging to The Nature Conservancy. These last remaining tenacious fig trees were included in the endangered food registry in 2014 on the Slow Food International's Ark of Taste thanks to efforts by Bernard L. Herman,  author of the James Beard-nominated A South You Never Ate, and George B. Tindall, Professor of Southern Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

The fig tree is a symbol of abundance, fertility, and sweetness.

Ficus carica
Ficus carica. Wikimedia commons

Northampton County  is truly a verdant, abundant land where so many good things grow. The fig tree thrives here on our shores and symbolizes the amazing riches we have in Bountiful Northampton. In May of 1879, an article appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine titled A Peninsular Canaan, that described for readers the abundance of the Eastern Shore:

"Figs and pomegranates flourish in the open air, with peaches, luscious as nowhere else in the world, apples, pears, melons, berries, and, in short, all varieties of fruit growing in temperate and semi-tropical regions. Wheat, oats, corn, and other cereals grow abundantly, vegetables yield a rich crop, and forest trees of valuable timber -- pine, cedar, cypress, and black and white oak -- abound. Not only does the lightest labor secure a speedy and abundant return from this generous soil, but Nature, as though it were her chosen spot, has stocked it with a lavish supply of her special bounties. The waters teem with oysters, fish, terrapin, and crabs, the long stretches of marshy shore with wild fowl, and the inland fields, morasses, and swamps with partridges, gray snipe, and woodcock. With such a land so near us, the busy hum of the world's teeming life beating against its shores like its own Atlantic surges, while it lies quiet and tranquil, with its Italian climate and fruitfulness of Normandy, supplying as it does a large part of the berries, one-third of the oysters, and nearly all the peaches to the New York markets, it is remarkable that so little is really known of it."

Our part of the Delmarva peninsula remains to this day a land of wondrous bounty and a hidden treasure!