Fig Tree Revenge

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The Revenge of the Fig Tree

Eleni was a 97 year old Cypriot neighbour of mine. She is just 4ft 1inch tall, walks a mile to the shop every day and lights candles outside her front door every night to guide the angels when they come to collect her ! She is a fiercely independent soul and only relies on us neighbours to do the heavy jobs that she can no longer manage.

Little Eleni

 
And so it was with some concern,  a few weeks ago, that I heard a noise that sounded just like a tree being felled – and the noise seemed to come from Eleni’s back yard. A quick jog (well, fast walk really) round to her house, and the source of the noise was clear. A massive fig tree branch, heavily laden with fruit, had broken from the main trunk and crashed down, narrowly missing Eleni as she hung out her washing. Naturally she was very upset and frightened and it took a lot of soothing noises, and a promise from Peter (another neighbour) and I that we would cut down the whole tree the following morning to calm her down ( and a few extra candles that night).

Eleni's House

Chain saw, axe and bow saw were the tools of choice as we attacked the offending tree. In temperatures of nearly 100F, stripped to the waist and with sweat pouring off us it took just 3 hours to reduce the tree to a pile of wood stacked and drying, ready for the log fire next winter. A very satisfying morning and a very happy Eleni, but little were we aware of the revenge that was fermenting in the decimated fig tree.The following morning, Isobel my wife noisily scolded me for not using the factor 50 sun cream the day before when working out in the sun. And indeed it did feel sore on my back, front, arms and even my hands – in places where the sun rarely ventures. As the day wore on, so the soreness became more intense, despite layer upon layer of soothing creams, and a quick enquiry over the garden wall revealed that Peter was suffering the same symptoms. It was only that evening, while enjoying a meal at the taverna, that the cause of the rapidly worsening skin redness, soreness and blisters was explained.

The Vengeful Fig Tree

‘You did cover yourselves up when cutting Eleni’s fig tree didn’t you? ’ said Andree, the taverna owner. Well, to be fair, in temperatures approaching 100F nothing could have been further from our minds - could it. ‘ Never touch the leaves or wood of a fig tree after dawn, when the sap has risen ‘ were her words. And indeed they were the words of many other knowledgeable Cypriots who made sucking noises of reproach and sympathy but, the problem was, no-one had told us before we embarked on the destruction of the fig tree!!

There followed a whole week of the intense soreness, redness and skin destruction associated with a chemical burn. Blisters the size of teacups, painful splits at joints and skin folds and an extreme hypersensitivity to the extent that even the touch of clothing made the eyes water. Probably the most soothing sensation was just to stand in  the swimming pool !!!

And it got worse !!

A search on Google found the following comments.

*      Fig trees ooze a white latex sap from pruning cuts. This sap contains an irritant called ficin that can cause dermatitis. Wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, full-length pants, a hat, and full-coverage eye goggles (not just glasses) when pruning fig trees, then wash thoroughly afterward.

*      The latex from the fig tree contains a proteolytic enzyme, ficin which is extremely irritant to skin and to the conjunctiva.

*      Special cells in the plant produce a latex that contains ficin, a protein-decomposing enzyme similar to papain. Contact with skin causes dermatitis, making use of gloves advisable when working with or harvesting figs.

 It took weeks for the skin soreness and blisters to heal and Peter and I are left with an orange / brown pigmentation of the affected areas. We may well have done Eleni a favour by chopping down her fig tree but the vegengeful tree didn’t do us any favours. I am sure that my next contact with a fig will be the dried variety in a box at Christmas.

 

 

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