The Man Who Gives a Fig

When we first paid Dino Palmieri a visit, we found him rustling among the branches of his fig trees, diving in and seeking out the mahogany fruits that dangled like rain drops deep inside the foliage. That, in itself, was not unusual. Late summer through first frost is prime harvest time for figs. What was unusual was the location of Palmieri’s orchard: on the south-facing sides of a Solon parking lot.

At the time (last August) that parking lot fronted Palmieri Enterprise, a low-slung brick office building from whence the hair salon impresario oversaw his empire.

As he dashed in and out of the towering trees—“You have to get inside them! The figs hide!”—the nimble 63-year-old offered a running commentary on that year’s madly bountiful crop.

“Aren’t they sweet?” Dino asked, handing over a perfectly ripe fig. “They’re like honey! I pick five or six pounds a day. They start coming in as early as August 12th or 15th, but this year they were late. I didn’t start picking until the end of August, because the weather was not so hot. If the summer is hot, you pick sooner. And look, these trees were only two feet tall when I planted them!”

Read the rest of this story...

Five years later, many of those former saplings had grown to more than 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Eighteen of them formed a living wall of boughs and bark snuggled up tight against the wall of the office building. Along the opposite side of the parking lot, in an unprotected strip of land, nine substantially smaller trees were doing their best to thrive.

What explained the striking size difference?

“That’s the best part of the story: sun and heat,” Dino replied.

While both rows of trees enjoyed a sunny southern exposure, he explained, only the ones against the building were protected from the elements. Perhaps even more important, the building’s dark brick exterior kept those trees warmer longer, by absorbing and slowly releasing the sun’s heat.

“Look how much taller these trees are,” said Dino, pointing to the 18 giants that fronted the building. “They get the most sun and heat. The ones over there”—and here he waved at the nine compact trees across the parking lot— “are smaller, and fewer of their figs get ripe. They are literally a month behind.”

“And it was by pure coincidence that I planted them the way I did. I just got lucky,” he added.

In the year since our initial visit, Dino has moved his headquarters to Bedford, taking 11 of his fig trees with him. “I planted them the same way,” he says of their new digs, “so they still get the sun and heat.” The others—minus one that died over the course of a winter that Dino calls “one of the worst ever”—remain in Solon, at the building he still owns. The trees are all doing well, he reports, and this year’s harvest remains on track.

Branching Out

Dino’s fig trees are Chicago Hardys (Ficus carica) and, as the name implies, the species is well-known for its ability to survive winters in USDA planting zones 5 to 10. (Northeast Ohio, by the way, straddles zones 5 and 6.) But even Chicago Hardys have their limits. In anything less than zone 7, winter protection is a necessity. That’s why most nurseries advise planting the trees in tubs, not directly in the ground, and moving them indoors for the winter. This is especially important in parts of the country, like here, where winter temperatures plunge below zero.

Dino purchased his saplings from Klyn Nursery in Perry, Ohio, and immediately defied the experts by plunging the trees straight into the soil. He’s found other ways to confound conventional wisdom, too. For instance, in place of a rich organic mulch, he uses rocks around the trees to keep the weeds down. He eschews the use of sprays or pesticides on the trees, and while he fertilized them when they were younger, Palmieri says that nowadays he doesn’t bother. As for the soil, it’s just as he found it. “The soil is clay,” he says with a shrug. “There’s nothing special about it.”

He also hit upon a unique method for overwintering his trees. The traditional labor-intensive process calls for binding, tipping, and burying the trees in deep trenches. Beyond being backbreaking work, the trenches require a significant amount of land, making it impractical for his parking lot location. “I figured there had to be a better way,” Dino says. And there was. His current process includes drawing the flexible branches upright, into a tight column, binding them with string, double-wrapping them in fiberglass insulation, and finally blanketing them in burlap. “And then wish for a mild winter,” he winks.

While they may be unconventional, there’s no doubt Dino’s techniques are effective. “April 1, we unwrap the trees and they start blooming,” he says. “The fruit won’t be as abundant this year as last, but that’s okay. I’ll still have plenty to give away.”

Deep Roots

“Figs are restorative, and the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness . . . professed wrestlers and champions were in times past fed with figs.”

—Pliny, Roman naturalist (A.D. 23–79)

Fig cultivation has been part of human history for centuries. In fact, fig trees may well have been one of the first plants domesticated by humans, predating wheat, barley, and beans. While the first fig trees appear to have originated in Asia, they quickly spread to the Middle East and then to the Mediterranean, where the fruit became a particular favorite of the Romans. As early as 160 B.C., the Roman senator Cato took pains to enumerate six varieties of the beloved fruit. And by the beginning of the Christian era, the naturalist Pliny had identified 29 varieties. (Today, more than 700 species are known, although many of them aren’t suitable for home gardeners.)

As Italians arrived in the United States, the revered fig was one of the things they brought with them. Almost like a metaphor for their own experience, their fig trees proved to be survivors, able to adapt and thrive in a foreign land. Both literally and figuratively, fig cultivation kept the immigrants connected to their roots.

Just as the Chicago Hardy species is believed to have originated in the subtropical climate of Sicily, Dino, too, originated in Italy, growing up near the Adriatic coast in the eastern province of Campobasso. He arrived in the United States in 1976, as a 22-year-old hairdresser. “I had to establish myself over here,” Dino says, and he did so with vigor. These days, as president of Palmieri Enterprise, he still oversees the chain of 10 Northeast Ohio salons that bear his name. But he’s moved on to other enterprises as well. Today, he identifies himself primarily as a land developer. He’s currently engaged in development projects in 12 Cleveland suburbs and is exploring opportunities in Columbus.

Personally, Dino shrugs off the notion that his fig trees could serve as an allegory for his own American success story. But his delight in their accomplishments is unmistakable.

Flavorful Figs

Beyond any cultural considerations, here’s another reason to grow figs: they are delicious.

Picked at the peak of ripeness—a quick twist of the wrist and the soft give of the stem—the flavors of a fig are a pirouette of honey, berry, and floral notes, balanced by a hint of tartness. Inside, a fig’s flesh is meltingly soft, with a voluptuous rosy appearance that is nearly erotic. And then there are those tiny seeds, providing a signature crunch, which lovers of a certain cookie may remember fondly from their childhoods.

They’re good for us, too. According to the California Fig Advisory Board, three medium-sized fruits contain about 110 calories, along with four grams of fiber, 10% of our daily potassium requirement, and a significant amount of calcium and iron.

From June through October, Italian menus abound with figs, Dino says. Fresh or grilled, stuff ed or spread, wrapped in prosciutto or drizzled with honey, the fruit finds its way into everything from antipasti to gelato. “There’s even a pizza topped with figs and gorgonzola,” Dino notes. “You have the sweetness of the figs, [and] the sharpness of the cheese.”

In past years, Dino’s harvest could easily weigh in at 140 pounds, or more. While this year’s yield will be considerably smaller, the question still remains: what to do with all that bounty? “Oh, we make a little jam, some preserves . . . but mostly, I give them away to family and friends.”

“I know you can get figs in the store,” Palmieri says thoughtfully, “but that’s just not the same. They are one of those fruits you have to pick out of the trees. That’s when they’re at their best.”