Elisabeth C. Miller Library

PAL Question

Are fig trees aromatic?

Answer:

I looked in a large number of our books on aromatic and fragrant plants,
and none listed fig (or Ficus carica) in the index. Although the leaves
may be mildly aromatic, it is not the usual reason people cultivate the
plant, so apparently not much is written on the subject. I found a highly
technical scientific article on a study comparing male and female fig
trees and fragrance emission. To the best of my understanding, the
composition of the volatile emissions and the quantity differed from male
to female, and were subject to seasonal and diurnal changes (most
emissions during the day, and in synchronization with the need to attract
pollinators). What this suggests to me is that the scent of an
individual tree may vary considerably.

The following is from general information on figs, from Purdue
University’s horticulture department.
Excerpt:

Leaves: Fig leaves are used for fodder in India. They are plucked after
the fruit harvest. Analyses show: moisture, 67.6%; protein, 4.3%; fat,
1.7%; crude fiber, 4.7%; ash, 5.3%; N-free extract, 16.4%; pentosans,
3.6%; carotene on a dry weight basis, 0.002%. Also present are
bergaptene, stigmasterol, sitosterol, and tyrosine.
In southern France, there is some use of fig leaves as a source of
perfume material called “fig-leaf absolute”, a dark-green to
brownish-green, semi-solid mass or thick liquid of herbaceous-woody-mossy
odor, employed in creating woodland scents.

The following information from a 2004 article by Tony Burfield entitled “a Brief Safety Guidance on Essential Oils” indicates that “fig-leaf absolute,” as an
essential oil, is phototoxic, in other words, will cause skin irritation
when exposed to light. For this reason, it is banned from inclusion in
perfumes by the International Fragrance Association.

Another site, BoJensen.net, includes “A small guide to Nature’s fragrances,” describing various essential oils.Excerpt:

“Fig leaves have a characteristic sweet-green fragrance, perceptible when
one stands close to the sun-warm trees or by handling the leaves. They
have been extracted on a limited scale for perfumery use in Grasse in
southern France. According to Arctander, fig leaf absolute is a dark
green to brownish green, semi-solid mass or viscous liquid of a
delicately sweet-green, herbaceous and somewhat woody odour with a mossy
undertone.

“Roman Kaiser, among 200 identified constituents of fig leaf absolute,
found a number of olfactorily relevant N-containing trace constituents,
one of them 2-isobutyl-4-methylpyridine, characterized by an attractive
tobacco-like, green, herbaceous odor. Major odorants were linalool,
benzyl acetate, methyl salicylate, beta-ionone and (Z)-3-hexenyl benzoate
[137].

“Buttery et al. identified germacrene D as a major volatile component in
fig leaves. Other major volatiles were beta-cyclocitral, (Z)-3-hexenol
and (Z)-3-hexenyl acetate [129].”

Ultimately, it seems to me that if you want to plant a fig tree with
fragrant leaves, you will have to do a sniff-test of your own. In my
experience, all fruit–fresh and dried–from the tree is aromatic,
regardless of variety, but you may detect more subtle differences. Buy
different types of fresh and dried figs at the market, and visit gardens
where figs are growing. I’m afraid that’s the best I can come up with.