Partnerships through Figs

**This post has been updated 9/21/19**

What’s been on my mind lately is prepping for the spring plant sale. While this is successful as a community event alone, we also aim to celebrate the heritage plants grown on the property. Additionally, we use this opportunity to generate revenue through the sale of plants. Materials that can be grown in-house receive better profit margins, so i’m focusing my first plant sale at Tudor Place to this objective. Being skilled in the culture of cuttings, divisions, and seed propagation goes a long way in creating positive outcomes for plant sales.

In this particular post I’d like to highlight one particular plant that I’ve focused on to meet our plant sale goals listed above. And that plant is the fig, which grows on site as an historic plant at Tudor Place.

The “no greenhouse” winter cuttings method

With the goal of having good sized fig plants ready for a May plant sale just six months away, I needed to get creative. At Tudor Place, there’s lots of competition for space in our hoop house for overwintering plants, so a warm sunny greenhouse was not an option. Some people take their fall cuttings and stick them in the fridge until spring, but that wouldn’t give us enough time for sell-able material. After doing some research, i discovered a method which took November cuttings and wrapped each one individually with para-film to hold in moisture and simulate a greenhouse. Cuttings were potted up and stored in the basement and put under grow lights when the buds started to swell. Through this method, plenty of new growth as well as developed roots were established by May. We enjoyed a 90% success rate. The cost of materials were very low, and we made several hundred dollars by rooting existing material.

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Discovering a heritage Fig

After enjoying the success of fig propagation, i decided to do some research to better learn of the plant’s significance to the site. We had an old fig on the property that was never labelled and we were not sure of its origin or provenance. After attempting to identify the specific variety of fig through various sources, i came across a reference from Monticello that listed a rather serendipitous connection. According to records, In 1809, Jefferson wrote to Dr. William Thornton, a close friend and architect of the Capitol in Washington: “I will take some occasion of sending you some cuttings of the Marseilles fig, which I brought from France with me, & is unquestionably superior to any fig I have ever seen.”

Tudor Place is the home of Martha Washington’s granddaughter and Thomas Peter. Their estate was built by their good friend William Thornton around 1816 in Georgetown. Its interesting to see this connection, and I believe it would make sense for Thornton to share fig cutting with his friends that were first sent to him by Jefferson a few years earlier. I coordinated with our archivist to see if figs are referenced during this period but had no luck. Additionally, the fig is also planted in an area that is rarely photographed, so our historic photo library did not help either. In researching the physical characteristics of the Marseilles fig, i did however determine that there was a possibility of being a match for our population.

After sharing this information with the curator and farm manager at Monticello, I was invited up to examine their fig collection and compare a sample cutting that i brought along for ID. Unfortunately, we determined that the fig colony at Tudor Place is not the historic Marseilles. However, there was a silver lining. Monticello has gifted us a historic Marseilles fig of their own. We will plant it on the grounds and sell the cuttings to help reinforce the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Tudor Place’s architect.



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