Herbs in History: Fig


Ficus carica L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | November 2023

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The most valuable fruit

Figs (Ficus carica L.) need no presentation. They are well known, be they dark blue or light green (Illustration 1), fresh or dry (Illustration 2). They remind us of the Mediterranean and its sun, the wide trees with a dome-shaped canopy (Illustration 3), their dark green leaves, pale green undersides, palmate, large up to 10 inches, with three to five lobes (Illustration 4), hairy, and emanating a typical fragrant scent. And the sugary taste, their hundreds of small seeds, and a crunchy feeling when eating figs (Illustration 5), which, when they are very ripe, drip a honey-like, paradisiac syrup (Illustration 6). Or, also, the dry figs, packed and interspersed with Noble Laurel leaves that preserve them from insects (Illustration 7).



Illustrations 1-7

The history of fig is well known and does not need to be recounted. More intriguing are its nutritional and medicinal uses from the Mediterranean tradition onward, which have been less investigated. It is not because of a lack of documentation, but, instead, because of its abundance, the many data it conveyed, apparent divergences and possible contradictions, and, by way of consequence, the uncertainties that this whole and complex body of material generates about the health benefits to be expected from figs and the value and interest of ancient documentation.
The clearest example of this confusion and ensuing skepticism might be the treatise De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE).  The fact is quite contradictory as the work is considered the most authoritative source of information produced in antiquity on the therapeutic uses of natural resources and is credited with an influential role during the centuries up to the 16th century and possibly beyond. A careful, detailed reading of the treatment of fig and fig tree in the work hints, instead, at a complex, yet articulated system that is worth a close examination.

Laxative or astringent?

In De materia medica, Dioscorides devoted a long and extremely detailed chapter to figs (Book I, chapter 128). Whereas, in the chapters on plants and derivatives, he usually starts with a botanical description, here he does not provide such information without even stressing that the tree is well known as he sometimes does. He immediately starts with the uses of the figs. In this way, he clearly indicates that they were known and did not need any presentation, and also that they are the object of his interest (not so much the tree itself). And, indeed, figs were so valued that, earlier, in the time of legislator Solon it became forbidden in Athens to sell figs on the market outside of Athens. Some Athenians did, nevertheless, export figs. When they were caught—most often on the basis of a report leaked to the judiciary authority—they were brought to court. Informants about such illegal exportation were identified as fig-delators (sukofantes) in a term that lost later its original meaning and was applied to any act of delation of a misdeed to the judiciary authority.
Dioscorides opens his chapter on figs with a straight statement that does not seem to announce healthy benefits:

Soft, ripe figs are bad for the stomach, they loosen the intestines … they provoke redness and perspiration, quench thirst and stop [bodily] heat.

The information about a laxative effect is immediately followed by a statement like a note introduced into the text by a physician reader:

… this diarrhea can easily be stopped …

And the statement about the unhealthy and cathartic action of ripe figs is counter-balanced by the following:

Dry figs are nutritious; they warm, they are very thirst-making, and they are good for the  digestive system.

Again, this new affirmation is contradicted by the next one:

Dry figs are not indicated in the case of vomiting and diarrhea.

This statement is contradicted (or nuanced?) some lines below:

Dry figs soften the belly when eaten chopped up with soda and safflower.

The following information adds to this chain of apparent contradictions:

Dry figs are suitable, instead, for the throat, the trachea, the bladder, and the kidneys.

And, to conclude this series, here is another reference to a cathartic activity:

To make the milk more laxative, soft branches of the fig tree are used to stir milk while warming i), instead of a spatula.

Pursuing the reading, one can trace a pattern in which fresh (particularly ripe and juice-full) and dry figs are diametrically opposed. This first binary opposition is further refined by a selective action of figs according to their state: while fresh figs have a laxative effect resulting from their softening, fluidification action, dry figs, instead, act on the upper respiratory system (throat and trachea in case of colds) and the urinary tract (bladder and kidney, with dysuria or anuria and scant kidney function).
Similarly, the caloric intake of dry figs stimulates the digestive system and provokes thirst contrary to fresh, juice-full figs, according to the ancient conception of digestion, which is based on a fundamental principle of heat to assimilate food, or rather to burn it. Heat should be moderate, however, not to generate vomiting or excessive bowel activity. Nevertheless, its balanced quantity is favorable to the digestive and excretory system.
It is worth noting that the indications above with their hint to the system that we are delineating come at the beginning of Dioscorides’ chapter on figs, as they provide readers with the keys for the understanding of the indications that follow.

Manuscript Vatican Library, Chisianus F VII 159, f. 218 verso, upper right representation

Illustration 8: Manuscript Vatican Library, Chisianus F VII 159, f. 218 verso, upper right representation

Beyond digestion

Once we perceive this differentiated action of fresh and dry figs, and their selectivity in targeting physiological systems, we discover a unitary and, at the same time, complex analysis and use of the properties of figs. Three parameters are considered: state (fresh or dry), action (cathartic or non-cathartic), and mode of administration (internal or external, with different pharmaceutical forms, accordingly).
Dry figs in internal use, eaten raw or in combination with other ingredients, have a fluidifying effect that can be used to treat several conditions—pathologic or not—requiring elimination of physiological matter. This is the case of constipation (treated with dry figs chopped and eaten with a mixture of soda and safflower), cold and congestion in both the upper respiratory system and the lungs, possibly chronic (cured with a decoction of dry figs boiled with hyssop), and edema (with unspecified forms of administration).
This decongestant activity might explain the recommendation to use dry figs for the treatment of asthma and epilepsy (unspecific form in internal use), as well as colics (unspecified liquid form with rue in an anal clyster injection) thanks to a relaxing effect. The latter might also contribute to understanding the prescription of dry figs mixed with flour (possibly of barley) and fenugreek in gynecology in the form of a vaginal fumigation (sits-bath), presumably aimed to treat induration of the cervix and the womb. The milky sap collected when harvesting figs or cutting young shoots—of which we will see below more applications with their typical action—relaxes the uterus “in a drink with a very fine meal.”
Similarly, in external use, dry figs are emollient in different forms. They can be boiled and applied as a cataplasm, apparently in raw form without any other substance, but probably chopped and directly applied as a paste on the skin without any bandage, to dissipate indurations and swellings (including of the parotid glands). For the latter, they can be combined with iris (which is also cathartic, in addition to adding some scent) and soda.
An external application of dry figs is prescribed for the treatment of dropsical edema with barley flour as an excipient (which is also emollient, however) and wormwood. Milky sap is also recommended for the reduction of dropsical edema in external application, with flour of fenugreek as excipient and vinegar.
Unclear, instead, the prescription consisting in applying externally the following paste to treat amenorrhea:

The milky sap applied with egg yolk and Tyrrhenian wax provokes menstruation.

Returning to the emollient activity, which is explicitly stated, it seems to be accompanied by some antiseptic action. Figs can be applied in an unspecified way (dry figs) or with wax (wild figs), and the latter should also be used on bites by field mice and millipedes, most probably for mice bites to prevent infections and, in any case, for both mice and millipedes, to decongest the swelling resulting from the bite and the contact with the irritating liquid secreted by millipedes.
This might also be the case with the treatment of styes, where figs are mixed with pomegranate peel and have thus their action complemented with astringency, resulting in a complete elimination. A similar application might be that of the treatment of sores in the lower leg that are hard to cure, suppurate and malignant. In that case, however, figs are mixed with a mineral component (copper sulfate), which might be responsible for the anti-bacterial activity of the compound.
This possible antiseptic activity might account for the prescription of a decoction of dry figs in internal use (a gargle) for inflammations of the tonsils and trachea.


Another part of the fig tree that provided significant uses is the sap “of the tender shoots of the wild fig tree … extracted when the shoots are as if pregnant, and when the buds are not yet open. After being chopped, they are pressed, and the sap is dried in the shade and stored.”
Whatever its form—harvested and prepared as above or fresh—this sap is caustic. It is used in drugs applied to open wounds (ulcerating remedies) and requires some precaution in external use. As per one prescription indeed:

… the flesh surrounding them (= warts) having been coated with suet …

Coating the skin with greasy matter clearly aims at protecting it with an impermeable substance that does not allow for the healthy skin to be irritated by the medicine. Among the skin conditions treated with fig sap, there are the following:

… white spots on the skin, lichen-like eruptions of the skin, freckles, ….
…  warts which spread under the skin

The leaves are credited with the same caustic action and are used to treat several conditions:

Applied externally with vinegar and salt, they treat scurf, dandruff, and painful night  pustules.


Leaves and wild figs applied externally with soda and flour remove warts spread under the skin and warty excrescences.

In some prescriptions, this caustic activity might have been combined with some symbolic value that possibly increased the action of the medicine. While in the first case below, the shape of the swelling seems significant according to the doctrine of signature, in the second colors create a dual opposition with black counteracting white:

Also, fig-like swellings and rugosity of the eyelids [can be] rubbed with leaves.
White spots on the skin [are treated] with a cataplasm of leaves or the branches of the black fig tree.

This caustic action is explicitly stated by Dioscorides in an extremely rare passage where he provided a theoretical explanation of the mechanism of action of a materia medica. It is about wild fig which is used in a specific form, duly detailed:

Wild fig can also be used in the form of a powder made of the ashes of the burned branches of the wild and cultivated fig trees. This powder must be washed many times, however, and it must be aged.
It is suitable for caustic medications and gangrenous conditions. It cleans, indeed, and absorbs superfluous matter.
To use it, a sponge must be repeatedly drenched with it and applied.

Fig in Mattioli’s commentaries on Dioscorides De materia medica, 1565, p. 288

Illustration 9: Fig in Mattioli’s commentaries on Dioscorides De materia medica, 1565, p. 288

Blood clots, broken bones

In external use, this caustic action, possibly in combination with an emollient effect, might result in an excretory effect, thus eliminating pathogen matter:

Wild figs boiled and applied externally soften all deposits and scrofulous swellings in the glands.
Fig leaves with honey [are efficacious] for impetigo.

This complex action had a surprising application in cooking, helping to soften hard meat:

Added to beef meat, soft branches make it easy to boil.

In another culinary application, fig sap can act as anti-coagulant:

The milky sap dissolves curdled matter, as does vinegar.

This dissolving property is exploited in internal use for the treatment of cardio-vascular and traumatological conditions:

Wild fig is also administered as a drink for blood clots and ecchymoses.

In an ambivalence that we have already seen above, fig has also a coagulating property opposed to this softening process, starting, again, with an application in cooking:

The milky sap of the wild and of the cultivated fig trees causes milk to curdle just like rennet.

In another rare theoretical explanation, Dioscorides explains how this catalytic action is used positively in medicine:

In some instances, wild fig is administered as a clyster, for instance for dysenteric patients, for chronic diarrhea, and for large ulcers under the skin, for it does clean, glue, and flesh up. It is agglutinating, apparently as do anti-hemorrhagic medicines.

The use of wild fig for the treatment of colic and diarrheal conditions is reaffirmed on this basis in internal use “in a quantity of a cyathos” (= 1.58 fl. oz.). And wild fig is also prescribed alone without further precision for the treatment of fractures and together with fig leaves “to restore bones.”


In a way that might be surprising in contemporary life, ancient medical and pharmaco-therapeutic literature abundantly refers to venoms and poisons. Figs are no exception.
A first case is that of the poisons that provoke a constriction of the upper respiratory system and asphyxia. As explicitly noted by Dioscorides, fig acts like vinegar and might have an astringent action on the trachea, relaxing constriction.
A second case is that of dog bites. Leaves of the tree “are also good for dog bites”, “venomous animals”, and “those bitten by dogs”. The dog-bites here are not by rabid dogs, but by healthy ones. The prescription might be interpreted as a precautionary measure to avoid possible secondary infections resulting from germs affecting the dog. In that case, the administration of fig in external use with honey as an excipient, might be accounted for by the excretory action of fig as above.
Another case, is that of scorpion stings:

The juice of wild and domesticated figs helps those stung by scorpions when applied on the sting site.

This local action might be interpreted in different ways according to the mechanisms identified above: excreting the venom through a mechanical astringency process, increasing cardiovascular activity against scorpion-induced bradycardia, unless it was speculative and not accountable for.
A last case is that of envenomation by spiders, against which wild figs are prescribed. No explanation is provided. Assuming that this was referred to neuro-toxic venom, this case might be connected with two prescriptions related to the nervous system:

Wild fig dissolved with one cyathos of fresh water and mixed with a little oil are indicated against spasms.
Wild fig is indicated as an unguent for patients suffering of tendinitis and spasms, since it is sudorific.

The sudorific action is of dubious interpretation as it might refer to increased physiological activity or elimination of pathogenic matter according to the above mechanisms. However, the indication for neurologic conditions would rather be explained by a neuro-relaxing activity that might recall the distensile and dissolutive action repeatedly mentioned by Dioscorides.


A valuable commodity that could not be exported, fig was a much-used medicine in ancient times. And it reflected a complex medico-therapeutic system that might have been speculative, but probably also resulted from a long experience that articulated a coherent network of actions and supposed mechanisms.
We conclude reporting three more applications that might not be accounted for with the actions identified above and add further value to figs:

Burned figs mixed with cerate treat chilblains.
The milky sap of figs and twigs help fight toothache when instilled with soft wool into the decayed tooth.
Ground dry figs mixed with mustard treat tinnitus and itching in the ears, taken internally and instilled.

Perhaps more research will clarify these prescriptions?

Scientific articles

Yang q. et al. 2023. New insights of fig (Ficus carica L.) as a potential function food. Trends in Food Science & Technology 140 (October 2023), pp. 104-146.
Lin L, Y. Zhang 2023. Chemical Constituents and Antidiabetic Activity of Dichloromethane Extract from Ficus carica Leaves. Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obese 16 (2023), pp. 979-991.
Sandhu, A. K., M. Islam, I. Edirisinghe, B.Burton-Freeman 2023. Phytochemical Composition and Health Benefits of Figs (Fresh and Dried): A Review of Literature from 2000 to 2022. Nutrients  15(11) (2023), 2623.
Rasool, I. F. U. Et al. 2023. Industrial Application and Health Prospective of Fig (Ficus carica) By-Products. Molecules 28(3) (2023), 960.
Radivoj R. 2019. Figs as a Cure (From a Byzantine medical treatise). Acta historiae Medicinae, stomatologiae, pharmaciae, medicinae veterinariae 38 (2019), pp. 21-25.
doi 10.5281/zenodo.3733176
Deepa P, K. Sowndhararajan, S. Kim, S.J. Park 2018. A role of Ficus species in the management of diabetes mellitus: a review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 215 (2018), pp. 210–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2017.12.045
Nadeem M., A. Zeb 2018. Impact of maturity on phenolic composition and antioxidant activity of medicinally important leaves of Ficus carica L. Physiology and Molecular Biology of Plants 24(5) (September 2018), pp. 881–887.
Alamgeer S.I., H. Asif, M. Saleem. Evaluation of antihypertensive potential of Ficus carica fruit. Pharmaceutical Biology 55(1) (2017), pp. 1047-1053.
Bauman H., J. Bisbano 2017. Food as Medicine. Fig (Ficus carica, Moraceae). HerbalGram 14(8) (2017)
Mahmoudi S. et al 2016. Phenolic and flavonoid contents, antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of leaf extracts from ten Algerian Ficus carica L. varieties. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 6(3) (2016), pp. 82–83.
Wojdyło A. et al. 2016. Phenolic compounds, antioxidant and antidiabetic activity of different cultivars of Ficus carica L. fruits. Journal of Functional Foods 25 (August 2016), pp. 421-432.
Oguzhan C. 2015. Mediterranean Figs (Ficus carica L.) Functional Food Properties, in V.R. Preedy and Ronald Ross Watson (eds). The Mediterranean Diet. An Evidence-Based Approach, 2015, pp. 629-637. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407849-9.00056-7
Shamkant B.B. et al. 2014. Traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology of Ficus carica: a review. Pharmaceutical Biology 52(11) (2014), pp. 1487-1503.
Barolo M.I., N. Ruiz Mostacero, S.N. López 2014. Ficus carica L. (Moraceae): an ancient source of food and health. Food Chemistry 164 (1 December 2014), pp. 119-127.
Mawa S., K. Husain, I. Jantan 2013. Ficus carica L. (Moraceae): Phytochemistry, Traditional Uses and Biological Activities. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine vol. 2013, Article 974256, 8 pages.

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