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Vickroy: It’s no fib: You can grow figs in this climate

William Pakosz looks over one his pot planted fig trees his home MattesIllinois Monday April 22 2013. | Joseph P.

William Pakosz looks over one of his pot planted fig trees at his home in Matteson, Illinois, Monday, April 22, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 8, 2013 6:06AM



Long before humans cultivated wheat, barley or legumes, they grew fig trees.

Some even suggest that figs were grown a thousand years before wheat and rye were domesticated.

“For 98 percent of the time humans have been alive, it has been a starvation existence,” said William Pakosz, a Matteson dentist and lover of natural history. “It wasn’t until recent times that food has been plentiful for so many.”

Back during much of those early hungry years, the fig tree was a symbol of survival. Its early spring blossom, called the breba, often was the first crop to be harvested. It could mean the difference between making it to summer harvests and starvation.

“Brebas helped people to survive,” he said.

In addition to its early bloom, the fig tree has been embraced by many cultures for its hardiness. Some can be harvested up to four times a year.

“Life goes on with these trees,” Pakosz said. “One tree can literally be around for ages.”

He has some to prove it.

Pakosz has been growing fig trees for decades, even though the trees are not conducive to our Zone 5 climate.

He leaves the potted trees out in spring, summer and fall, and then winters them in his attached garage.

Bringing them into his house, he said, could kill them. They need to go dormant. Putting them indoors would be too warm, and leaving them outside in winter would freeze them to death. So he keeps the potted trees in a corner of his garage, where the temperature dips far enough to send them into a long winter’s sleep.

He advises watering every couple of weeks during dormancy. And, he adds, be careful not to let them get chilled while you’re shoveling the driveway.

Pakosz was a teenager growing up in Harvey, and then Hazel Crest, when he was introduced to fig trees.

“There was an Italian shoemaker in Hazel Crest who had one. He showed me how to propagate them in soil,” he said.

Many people who hail from the Mediterranean region grow them, he said, because the trees remind them of home.

The fig tree is everywhere, he said, from the Bible — mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments — to the base of the Grand Canyon, where he spied one during recent travels.

“I recognized the leaf right away,” he said.

Today, he has eight fig trees. He also grows lemon, tangerine and naval orange trees. He stores those trees in his garage during the winter, as well.

Beyond gardening, Pakosz loves to study the history of the trees. The naval orange, for example, was discovered by a monk who noticed a certain kind of orange had a miniature orange inside.

His first fig tree, a brown turkey fig, still is going strong and has been clipped and propagated into several new trees.

“Brown turkey figs are smaller and sweeter than the black mission figs, which we tend to find in the stores,” he said. “I just love them. They’re my favorite fruit.”

They’re also high in nutrients, said Pakosz’s wife, Dolores.

“They’re good for your teeth,” she said.

Their three grown children also love them, she said.

Pakosz said figs can be eaten raw or after being boiled in water.

When he wants to start a new tree, Pakosz simply takes a cutting, making sure there are at least three knots and that the twig is at least 6 inches long, and places it in water. Once it starts to sprout, he plants the tip end in soil.

“It’s so easy,” he said.

Pakosz was torn between studying dentistry and natural history. The Thornton High School and Loyola University graduate said that in the end a “good mentor” swayed him toward dentistry.

So just about everything else became his passion. He studies anatomy, botany and human immigration patterns. His ancestors came from Ballinstadt, Germany. He also researches ancient man and current diseases.

Pakosz opened his dentistry in 1979. He still sees patients a couple of days a week. In between, he tends to his collection of trees. And he encourages others to follow in his footsteps.

“All a tree needs is a nice pot and some water,” he said.

And if you have a hankering to grow one that is native to the Mediterranean area, you’ll also need a garage.



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