Marseilles Fig

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

Marseilles Figs
Marseilles Figs

Common Name: Marseilles Fig[1]

Scientific Name: Ficus carica cv.

Thomas Jefferson's passion for figs helped propagate this variety in Virginia and possibly the United States.[2] 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."[3] He also shared Marseilles figs with John Hartwell Cocke, owner of Bremo Plantation along the James River. Cocke sent his slave Jesse to Monticello in 1817 to collect some plants.

In general, Jefferson had success in growing figs in Virginia.[4] The plant was sometimes difficult to harvest in colder climates compared to the Deep South, so he provided protective covering for the plants and planted them in the "submural beds" at the base of the kitchen garden wall, which afforded a warm micro-climate necessary to bear fruit. He planted them as early as 1769 in the orchard and included figs in a 1774 South Orchard plan.[5]

The Marseilles fig is a half-hardy, deciduous shrub that produces small, greenish-white fruits in late summer.

Primary Source References[6]

1787. (Tour through Southern France). "The most delicate figs in Europe are those growing about this place [Marseilles], called figues Marcelloises, or les veritables Marcelloises, to distinguish them from others of inferior quality growing here. These keep any length of time. All others exude a sugar in the spring of the year and become sour. The only process for preserving them is drying them in the sun, without putting any thing to them whatever."[7]

1789 May 7. (Jefferson to William Drayton). "Plants sent by Mr. Cathalan. 44. figuiers, de 3. especes. [the Marseilles fig is admitted to be the best in the world]."[8]

1789 September 1. (List of Baggage Shipped by Jefferson from France). "2. white fig."[9]

1809 November 16. (William Thornton to Jefferson). "I am much obliged by your kind intention of sending me some of the fine Marseilles Fig..."[10]

1810 June 8. (William Thornton to Jefferson). "I am very glad that the young Fig trees arrived safe, and also the former ones were still alive."[11]

1814 October 11. (Isaac A. Coles to Jefferson). "Mrs. Singleton from whom I received it, is very desirous of getting a few plants of the Marseilles Fig to carry back with her to Carolina, where it is not known at all & where the climate will suite it so well."[12]

1817 March 27. (John Hartwell Cocke). "Sent to Monticello for some Marseilles figs..."[13]


  1. This section is based on a Center for Historic Plant Information Sheet.
  2. Peter J. Hatch, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 165.
  3. PTJ:RS, 1:600.
  4. Hatch, 161.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  7. PTJ, 11:428.
  8. Ibid, 15:101.
  9. Ibid, 15:377.
  10. PTJ:RS, 2:3.
  11. Ibid, 2:456.
  12. Betts, Garden Book, 534, and copy available at Library of Congress.
  13. Ibid, 637.

Further Sources