WHAT IT IS: Figs grow on the ficus tree, which is a member of the mulberry family.

With about 750 species of figs worldwide, they are eaten either fresh or dried. The fruit, known as wuhuaguo in Chinese, contains significant amounts of calcium, potassium, phosphorus and iron.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia notes that the fig was one of the earliest fruit trees to be cultivated by primitive people.

The tree thrives in a wide variety of soil types and, depending on its variety, may bear one or two crops in a year.

An article in the Human Ecology journal in 2013 reported that more than one million tonnes of figs are produced annually worldwide, with Egypt and Turkey producing over half of the world’s supply.

It also said wild figs reproduce by pollination and germination of seeds, whereas cultivated figs are clones of female trees propagated through cuttings.

A packet of dried figs is sold at $2 for a tael (37.5g) at some medical halls here.

HOW TCM USES IT: The sweet fig is considered cool in nature. Like other food with a sweet property, it has the ability to nourish the body.

Figs are also known to promote fluid production through the meridians of the lungs, stomach and large intestines. Meridians are channels in the body through which qi (vital energy) travels.

Ms Karen Wee, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner at The Renhai Clinic in Neil Road, said this cool herb is used to moisten dry lungs, which give rise to dry coughs.

This happens if there is prolonged coughing, which weakens the lungs by depleting its qi and yin (the element responsible for cooling organs). As a result, the lungs may lose moisture and dry coughs will occur.

Exposure to dry weather can also lead to dry coughs. And if there is environmental haze which makes breathing more strenuous, this will also dry out the respiratory tract and cause dry coughs, she added.

Figs can also be used to nourish the stomach and promote digestion. They are especially useful if there are signs that someone is about to experience yin deficiency in the stomach such as poor appetite and dry mouth. In this instance, figs can be used alongside dwarf lilyturf tuber, Chinese yam and germinated barley, Ms Wee said.

Lastly, figs are can be used with honey to moisten the large intestines and relieve constipation caused by excess heat in the body.

This can manifest as hard and dry stool and dark-coloured urine.

WHO IT IS FOR: People should use fresh and dried figs in moderation as they are known to have a laxative effect.

Those who are prone to dry coughs and constipation should find figs useful. They can take up to 30g of figs daily, said Ms Wee.

WHO SHOULD AVOID IT: People with a cold body constitution should not take figs daily.

They have a tendency to pass loose stools, a sign that the stomach has a cold disposition. Taking figs in excess can worsen the diarrhoea, said Ms Wee.

WHAT RESEARCH HAS SHOWN: A study published in 2010 in Cell Journal reported that latex extract from the fig tree was able to prevent the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) in endothelial cells collected from umbilical cords.

Endothelial cells form the linings of blood vessels, which supply blood to tissues in the body.

Angiogenesis plays a role in the development of some conditions, such as diabetic retinopathy, tumour growth and the spread of cancer.

The authors from a research centre in Iran concluded that the fig “could be a candidate as a potential agent for the prevention of angiogenesis in cancer and other chronic disorders”.

Snow pear with fig soup

Serves four

500g pork ribs, blanched in hot water
1 big snow pear, cut into four slices
10g almonds
10 to 15g coastal glehnia root
25 to 30g lily bulbs
25g rock sugar
4 pieces of figs
2 litres of water
1 tsp salt

1 Boil the pork ribs in the water for 30min. Add the salt.
2 Add the coastal glehnia root, lily bulbs and almonds, and boil for 30min on a low heat.
3 Next, add the figs and snow pear and boil for 15min, or until the pear turns soft.
4 Add the rock sugar before serving the soup warm.

This article was originally published in Mind Your Body, June 18 2015.