Go ‘Fig’ure: Elma Man Unravels the Mystery of Figs


Denny McGaughy wants to see a fig tree planted in the yard of every home in Lewis County. The Elma man, who is a retired biologist and musician, has spent the last 20 years in the scholarly pursuit of classifying fig trees he finds as he travels throughout the region.

There is some mystery surrounding the classification of figs. While there are over 200 varieties as borne out by DNA typing, many figs have been renamed, rediscovered, and misidentified over the years. Many heirloom varieties have also been given several different names or lost altogether. As a result, one variety of figs may have been called multiple names, although the DNA for each is exactly the same. Denny McGaughy has been instrumental in helping to sort that all out.

McGaughy displays significant enthusiasm about his chosen field, and he takes it very seriously. Working in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Clonal Germplasm Repository at UC Davis, McGaughy has helped identify many fig varieties. He even discovered a new type in Olympia, which he called the Olympian. He’s also found three other heirloom varieties that have yet to be DNA-matched with existing fig strains.

McGaughy finds one unidentified variety particularly exciting. He calls it the Black Surry because he found it in Surry, British Columbia and it bears black fruit. What excites McGaughy about the Black Surry is it ripens two full crops of figs within a single year’s growing cycle in a cooler climate. According to McGaughy, some varieties of figs produce two crops each year (in June/July and August/September) in warmer climates, but fail to do so in cooler areas. The first harvest, called the breba crop, bears less fruit, and the figs are smaller and more acidic. The main crop is more abundant, with larger, sweeter figs. One of the challenges in the Pacific Northwest is that few fig trees ever yield the abundant main crop because it just isn’t warm enough for long enough to ripen fruit for the second harvest.

McGaughy’s love affair with the fig began on a trip through California many years ago. After tasting a fig freshly plucked from a Sacramento tree, he was hooked.

“It’s God’s candy,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s a wonderful fruit.”

He began trying to identify the multiple varieties of figs that grew throughout the region, traveling throughout California, Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia. He took cuttings of figs he found, and started growing them at his house with mixed success.

Currently, McGaughy is working on a project in collaboration with Lewis County Parks and Recreation. He has planted an experimental Celeste fig tree in Borst Park. The tree went in early last year and yielded a modest crop of figs, although passersby plucked them before McGaughy was able to pick any himself to photograph and study.

While fig trees generally thrive in warm climates, McGaughy has identified several varieties that perform particularly well in the cooler microclimates of Lewis County. According to McGaughy, the secret for growing figs is heat units, a measure of how heat is trapped in order to ripen the fruit. In his research, McGaughy discovered that Centralia has 2,000 average heat units per year, higher than where he lives in Elma, which gets about 1,500 or 1,600 on average.

Armed with that information, McGaughy approached the Parks Department about an experimental planting.

“I wanted to try a few varieties that I can’t make happen at my house,” he says. “That’s how I got involved in that.”

So far, he is pleased with the results. Last year the Borst Park Celeste fig tree yielded two crops. McGaughy would like to try other varieties, as well, although he’d prefer to find a location more off the beaten path so he can study and taste the ripened figs before others pick them all.

“I would like to plant them so I can count on watching the fruit,” he says.

So if you come across a fig tree at a park in Centralia and are tempted to pick the fruit, be sure to leave some of nature’s candy for Denny McGaughy.


Karen Frazier is an author and freelance writer. She lives in Chehalis with her family.