SCARBOROUGH — Ten years ago, Don Endrizzi planted a fig tree outside his home, which sits a long stone’s throw from Maine’s largest salt marsh. Beach plum, cord grass, quack grass, foxtail barley, chaffy sedge, glasswort, poison ivy and cattails – also mosquitoes – call the marsh home. Fig trees do not.

Home is the Mediterranean, where the fruits of the fig grow large and plump and voluptuous. Scarborough, it hardly needs saying, is a long way from the Mediterranean. Figs are thought to have arrived in America with Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson brought cuttings of the Marseilles fig to Monticello.

Over the centuries, fig trees happily took to hot places with sluggish, lingering summers. Places like Texas and South Carolina. Scarborough is not especially hot and the summers march along briskly. Tragically so.

None of this entered Endrizzi’s gardening calculations when he got a fig cutting from his then-85-year-old father a decade ago.

Endrizzi, 59, is a first-generation Italian-American who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Like many Italian and Greek immigrants who settled in Brooklyn and Queens, his maternal grandfather planted fig trees, tenderly swaddling them in burlap and protective buckets each winter because New York City, like Scarborough, is many miles north of the tree’s natural habitat.

Just five houses away, his paternal grandfather did the same. Years later, his father inherited one of the houses – and with it, the fig trees.


Endrizzi had fond recollections of his 1960s fig-filled Brooklyn boyhood, and they fueled his – some might say quixotic – attempts to grow his own tree in Maine.

“We looked forward to the figs every year. Once the figs were ripe, we were so excited about it,” he said. “There was nothing like going down to the garden and walking to the tree and finding some ripe figs and just picking them and eating them. And that’s what we did.”

Endrizzi and his wife, Peggy Pennoyer, already grew more typical Maine produce in their Scarborough garden. They had a raspberry patch, an asparagus bed and high- and lowbush blueberries. But although Endrizzi can comfortably toss off and competently define terms like “apical meristem,” for him the quest to grow figs wasn’t really about gardening. It was about family.

“My father had a tree and his father had a tree, and I just wanted to keep that tradition going,” said Endrizzi, himself a father of three.


Endrizzi’s paternal grandfather came to America from the Trentino region of the Tyrol in the 1920s, perhaps earlier. He worked for a time, earned money, returned home – where, Endrizzi adds wryly, he got his wife pregnant – then traveled back to the States to repeat the pattern. America beckoned for the obvious reason, for the reason immigrants have always been drawn here: because life in the old country was hard and life in the new held promise.


A 4-foot by 1-foot panoramic photograph hangs in the Endrizzis’ dining room. Hundreds of men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best stand facing the camera. In the bottom corner, the scene is identified in precise, even handwriting: “The general mass meeting of friends and members of the United Mine Workers of America, Osage, West Virginia, May 17, 1931.”

Pennoyer singles out a man near the back. He is smoking a pipe and neatly dressed in a fedora, jacket and tie. That’s Donato Endrizzi, then a carpenter and a mineworker.

By 1936, Donato Endrizzi had earned enough money to bring his family to America and settle here for good – his wife, his four daughters and his 15-year-old son, Santo Endrizzi. They moved to Bushwick, a place Don Endrizzi jokingly describes as the “Tyrolean ghetto.”

Around 1929, Don Endrizzi’s maternal grandfather, Pietro Facini, also arrived in America from the Tyrol, his wife and two children, including 5-year old Ida (named for the opera “Aida”), in tow.

He, too, moved to Bushwick and he, too, worked as a carpenter, helping to build one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks – either the Empire State Building or the Lincoln Tunnel. Don Endrizzi’s other grandfather helped build the other. “I can’t for the life of me remember which one did which,” Endrizzi said.

Santo Endrizzi learned English, though he never finished high school. He played the accordion at resorts in the Catskills. During World War II, he fought for his new homeland, the United States, against his old homeland, Italy. At some point, Santo Endrizzi and Ida Facini fell in love and in 1954, they married. They had three daughters and one son, and they named the boy Don Peter Endrizzi, after both of his grandfathers.


When Don Endrizzi was in high school, his father returned to high school, too. GED in hand, Santo Endrizzi gave up the saloon he part-owned and secured a job with the New York City Transit Authority. He retired from the agency 28 years later.

Now 95, Santo Endrizzi still grows figs, and he still plays the accordion as a member – the oldest member – of the Long Island Accordion Alliance. His son, Don, too has played the accordion since boyhood, and he hoped to add figs to his life CV.

The fig doesn’t fall far from the tree.


Don Endrizzi chose a protected spot between the garage and the house for his fig tree. It had nice southern exposure, so lots of sunshine, and he thought the high retaining wall of sun-absorbing concrete at the tree’s back would shield it from the worst of Maine’s snowy, frigid winters. Even on cold days, the wall feels warm to the touch. In this micro-climate perhaps his little fig sprig would survive and thrive.

Each year for the next six, Endrizzi conscientiously cared for his tree. He watered it during especially dry spells. He fertilized every growing season, and he topped it off with a little compost to encourage it to flourish.


Bugs never seem interested – maybe they couldn’t even recognize the southern interloper? But mostly, Endrizzi fretted about the cold.

So one year he wrapped the tree in burlap for the winter, like he’d learned to do as a boy in Brooklyn. Another year, he wrapped it in burlap, then added a layer of bubble wrap. His theory was that the sunshine would heat up the cells in the bubble wrap, which, combined with the burlap, would keep the tree comfortable.

When that failed, he tried enclosing the fig tree in a Plexiglass greenhouse he rigged up himself.

“I don’t know how well thought-out these attempts were,” he admitted.

Each winter but one it was the same story: The tree died back to the ground and the next summer would expend so much energy putting out new leaves and branches, it had none left over to set fruit.

One especially mild winter, the tree survived, and the following summer it grew “at least 7 or 8 feet tall,” Endrizzi recalls.


As the tree grew sizable, Endrizzi grew hopeful. But did he get a fig crop that year? Did he get a fig crop any year?

“Never,” he said.


Endrizzi asked for and got a new cutting from his father.

The original fig tree remained in its protected spot near the garage, where each subsequent year it has continued to leaf but not fruit.

He planted the new cutting in a pot, and he overwintered it, wrapped, inside the shed. In the spring, it emerged scrawny and unsightly, with just a few brown leaves clinging to its trunk. Even the shed was too cold for the Mediterranean migrant.


So Endrizzi scaled back his ambitions. He moved the potted tree inside for good and decided to grow it as a decorative house plant – the leaves are pretty, after all – a living reminder of his roots in Brooklyn and Italy.

To disguise its homeliness that first year, Pennoyer draped it with a string of Christmas lights. “I protested against that,” Endrizzi said. Unsuccessfully. The lights still hang on the tree.

Soon, things began to turn around. The new cutting grew. Endrizzi had to move it to a bigger pot, and then a bigger one yet. Summers, the tree stayed in the living room, near the baby grand piano and a bank of windows. Winters he kept it in the kitchen for sun and for warmth.

“The angled light in the winter is just great here,” Pennoyer said, pointing to the spot. “It’s drenched in sun.”

A couple of years ago, Endrizzi was watering the tree and inspecting it as he does every day “to make sure it’s doing okay” when he noticed something lumpy underneath one of the branches – “these little bulbous shoots coming out. Little figs!!!” as he wrote in an email. Four figs to be exact.

He took photographs. He sent them to his three grown children. He sent them to his father. And that January, he harvested his first crop. Think about that: Fresh local figs. In Maine. In January.


Earlier this summer, the couple contributed a cheese platter with fresh figs to a potluck party in North Yarmouth. Their own, Maine-grown, hyper-local figs. Pennoyer jokingly introduced her husband to another guest as “my husband, the fig farmer.”

In actual fact, he is an orthopedic surgeon and she is an allergist and immunologist.


How is the fig tree pollinated if it lives inside? The question stumps Endrizzi. Pennoyer, who grew up in Portland and got her first taste of a fresh fig when she was dating Endrizzi, googles it. It turns out figs can self-pollinate.

Since they’re online anyway, they call up Google Earth and locate the Endrizzi and Facini homesteads in Bushwick, swooping in to peer at the backyards where Endrizzi played as a boy. Small as they were, his grandfathers’ gardens teemed with tomatoes, green beans and bell peppers. The yards are asphalt now, and the fig trees are gone.

Had Endrizzi’s grandfathers smuggled fig cuttings from Italy in the bundles they carried to America? Many Italians who settled in Brooklyn and Queens did just that, planting themselves and the cuttings in their adopted home and hoping to grow strong roots. Don Endrizzi can’t answer that question, either. But he knows who can.


Seconds later, he is on Facetime. “Hi Dad!” Endrizzi says, excited and jolly. “Are you busy? Got a minute? I have questions about the figs.”

Santo Endrizzi’s eyes are merry, his manner is lively and sociable, and his round cheeks look like he is hiding nuts in them. After 80 years in America, his accent remains thick and as warm as sun-ripened figs. For several minutes, father, son and daughter-in-law chat and laugh. Affection and love spill from the phone.

This habit of fig-growing and fig-eating, it turns out, dates back just three generations. The Tyrol region is in the Alps, Santo Endrizzi reminds his son. In Italy, the family lived 868 meters above sea level. Like Maine, it’s far too cold there for fig trees.

It was southern Italian immigrants in New York City who introduced the Endrizzis and the Facinis to the fruit. “I never had (figs) until I get to America,” Santo Endrizzi tells his son.

The families started a new tradition in a new country.



This year, his second as a successful fig farmer in Maine, Don Endrizzi has harvested a crop “just slightly into double digits,” he says, standing by his one productive and (it must be said) merely shrub-sized tree. “In fact, this one looks about ripe, so I’m going to pull it off. Feel it. It’s so soft. Yeah, we’ll eat that one today.”

“Look at this,” he says, proudly counting out the 10 figs ripening on just a single branch.

Back in the kitchen, he pulls out a small, well-used cutting board that once belonged to his paternal grandparents. He quarters the fig and shares it.

Fresh figs from Whole Foods or Hannaford, available in Maine seasonally, are neither this yielding nor this sweet. They can’t evoke boyhood or Brooklyn or the immigrant experience, either.

The youngest Endrizzi, Doug, who is 28, lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is studying for his doctorate in physics. Average temperature in winter? 20 degrees. Not fig country.

But Doug Endrizzi loves to grow things. As an undergraduate at Yale, he helped run the university’s farm. He is hunting for a house of his own now, and his mom says the houses he has looked at barely seem to have registered. What has excited him is the size and situation of the potential garden.

Doug Endrizzi’s “grandpa” gave him a fig cutting recently. Like his dad, he planted it in a pot. He keeps the tree outside in the summer and moves it inside when the temperature begins to fall. Earlier this month, he phoned his parents with some news.

“Dad,” he said, “I got figs on my tree!”


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