The Mighty Fig

Denman Island farmers spread the seeds of knowledge about the first fruit ever cultivated by humans — the fig

“When you take advantage of the opportunities water sports present, <a href=

buy more about you’re seeing your community in a different light because you are literally seeing your community from a different angle, hepatitis ” says Stuart Robinson. Photo by Seadance Photography” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> “When you take advantage of the opportunities water sports present, you’re seeing your community in a different light because you are literally seeing your community from a different angle,” says Stuart Robinson. Photo by Seadance Photography

You may have seen them on the Courtenay River, along the Estuary or in the Comox Marina—life jacket clad individuals and groups standing on surf boards with paddle in hand, propelling themselves across the water. You’d be forgiven if, like me, you mistook them for traditional fisher-folk performing their daily work.

They are not fisher-folk, however. They are stand up paddle boarders—participants in the world’s fastest growing water sport. Originating in Hawaii, participants stand on a specially designed surf board and use a paddle—along with their core muscles—to propel themselves across the water.

Barely 10 years old in its modern form, the sport has an enthusiastic fan base worldwide. The appeal of the sport is in the ‘glide’—the moment when body, board and paddle work together to create the sensation of floating smoothly across water. And it has been in the Comox Valley pretty much since its inception.

Local stand up paddle boarding starts with brothers Stuart and Andrew Robinson, water sport enthusiasts and co-owners and operators with their dad James of Compass Adventure, a water sport teaching centre operating out of the Comox Marina. For the past 25 years, the Robinsons have been teaching sailing to students and residents of the Comox Valley. In 2004, Stuart and Andrew tried stand up paddle boarding as an alternative to weather dependent water sports like wind surfing, and immediately saw the potential.

“Any person can do it, and you can paddle on a river, go touring, go surfing, you can paddle on flat water, you can paddle on the ocean, you can go in races all on the same piece of equipment,” says Stuart Robinson. “That’s great on its own. But then you add the surf culture side to it and you become part of a tribe of people who love to be on the water, and everyone has a surf board on the roof of their car.”

To say the brothers hit the sport hard would be an understatement. Both Robinson and his brother compete in stand up paddle boarding, and have earned top place North American finishes in the past five years. Stuart is the 2013 national champion.

In 2006, they started SurfSUP, their stand up paddle board company offering lessons alongside the Compass Adventure programming. The company name is derived from the old time saying “Surf’s up!”, meaning “Now is the time to hit the surf! The conditions are perfect. Let’s go!”, and SUP, the acronym used for stand up paddle boarding.
In 2008, they launched the SurfSUP Island Series, a three-event race series intended to showcase the sport of stand up paddle boarding on Vancouver Island. Stand up paddle boarders of all ages and abilities compete in a combination of beach sprint races, fun relays and long distance courses in Victoria, Tofino and Comox. Spectators get to enjoy a beachside BBQ, music, and demos on new water sports products. Locals can check out this year’s event in Comox on August 9-10.

Despite these sorts of initiatives and an unwavering enthusiasm for the sport, stand up paddle boarding—and water sports in general—remain one of the best kept non-secrets in the Comox Valley.

“Knowing that this is here is a bit of secret we would like to expose,” says Robinson. “We’re quiet and modest about our accomplishment, and it’s time to let other people know what’s here and how great a place it is.”

And according to Robinson, it is great.

“We’ve been lucky to travel around and see a lot of different water sports areas,” says Robinson. “This one of the best places anywhere to do water sports.” Perhaps even better than Hawaii. Yes, the water is colder, but the conditions are better and more varied. The bay is sheltered, with ideal sailing conditions. If there is the need or desire for rougher conditions, it’s simple enough to head around Goose Spit for stronger wind and more waves. In fact, Goose Spit on a windy day is perfect for stand up paddle board surfing, along with wind and kite surfing.

“Most places have one thing,” says Robinson. “We seem to have it all when it comes to water.”

The varied water conditions have also allowed Compass Adventure to develop a unique progression-based learning system for all of its water sports programs. Students of all ages learn by doing and skills are broken down into age-appropriate and experience-based steps.

“There is very little time spent in the classroom,” says Robinson. “Our classroom is the ocean.”

The result has been a great deal of success out of a very small teaching centre. Compass Adventure racing academies have produced national champions and North American top placings in Hobie Cat sailing (an Olympic-class sport) and stand up paddle boarding. For example, 12-year-old Valley resident Mia Wheatley-Maltois is the 2013 junior women’s national champion in stand up paddle boarding, and Liam Cursley is the second place junior men’s finisher. Andrew Robinson was a top-three North American finisher in Hobie sailing as youth.

“The program works and a lot of people throughout North America take note of what is happening here,” says Robinson.

That track record of success, though, has not yet made water sports a big part of the culture in the Comox Valley. One factor is, of course, the temperature of our local water; it’s cold, and it’s not a lot of fun being out on the water on a windy winter’s day if you’re not dressed for it. That’s something most Hawaiians don’t have to contend with. But for Robinson, it’s more fundamental than that.

“The ocean is not a place a lot of people feel at home,” says Robinson. “We should be. You can learn a lot about yourself in that environment.” That includes important life lessons like working through fear.

The Robinsons come up against people’s fear of the ocean a lot in their line of work, and it is something that impacts both children and adults. Even someone comfortable on a river or lake can balk at the thought of being out in deep ocean water. There is something about the cold and the depth that hits a primal nerve for many. So, we tend to avoid oceans and water sports saying they’re not for us.

That’s why the Robinsons and Compass Adventure staff spend a lot of time teaching basic water safety, and how to respect the ocean environment. Staff are certified coaches or instructors who are competitively or recreationally active in the sports they teach, whether that’s sailing or stand up paddle boarding or another water sport. It keeps staff passionate and up-to-date in their sports.

“I’ve seen people go from never being in the ocean, to loving it,” says Robinson. “Especially the kids. At first they’re quite nervous. Sometimes when it’s stormy out we’ve taken them out to give them that experience of what the ocean is like. They come back in and they’ve had the time of their life.”
For others, it radically changes their perspective on their community.

“When you take advantage of the opportunities water sports present, you’re seeing your community in a different light because you are literally seeing your community from a different angle,” explains Robinson.

Paddle up the Courtenay River from the Marina or the Estuary, and you’ll experience the river shoreline in a way you can’t from the street or even access because of how the city has been built. Ocean adventures can take you to places you otherwise wouldn’t access because of their distance or remoteness, and can expand your sense of space and relationship to nature.

That sort of transformation is important to Robinson, who notes that people comfortable and confident in a water environment tend to become stewards of that environment. And that sort of care and consideration is something any community with a water sports area needs.

“Our classroom is the ocean,” says Stuart Robinson, the 2013 national champion in stand up paddle boarding.  Photo by Seadance Photography

“Our classroom is the ocean,” says Stuart Robinson, the 2013 national champion in stand up paddle boarding. Photo by Seadance Photography

“We are proud of what this community has to offer and we want to share that with more people,” says Robinson.

To that end, Compass Adventure has partnered with the Comox Downtown Business Improvement Association “Comox by the Sea” to offer a weekly Tuesday evening paddle and BBQ at Marina Park. The event is open to the community and anyone with a paddle craft—whether that be a kayak, canoe, stand up paddle board, rowboat or something else. Paddlers can participate in a timed paddle on the water; it’s up to you whether you want to make it a race or a friendly paddle with your neighbors. In its first month the event attracted more than 40 people each week and Robinson hopes to break the 100-person mark by the end of summer.

More than anything, though, Robinson hopes the event will help change people’s concept about the accessibility of water sports.

“That’s what is so great about something like stand up paddle boarding,” says Robinson. “You can start at any level, and still get something out of it. If you’re willing to try new things and step out of your comfort zone, this is the place to do that in a safe and really fun environment.”

For more information about Compass Adventure’s summer programs, lessons and rentals visit or

Hari Amrit and Devmurti Khalsa, <a href=

pilule founders and proprietors of Figs For Life Nursery on Denman Island, decease grow and sell more than 70 varieties of hardy fig trees, as well as a selection of rare fruit and nut trees, basket willows, ground covers and more. Photo by Seadance Photography” src=”×400.jpg” width=”602″ height=”400″ /> Hari Amrit and Devmurti Khalsa, founders and proprietors of Figs For Life Nursery on Denman Island, grow and sell more than 70 varieties of hardy fig trees, as well as a selection of rare fruit and nut trees, basket willows, ground covers and more. Photo by Seadance Photography

Consider the fig. There’s more to this fruit than one might think. Chewy and intense when dried, ambrosially juicy when fresh, the fig is woven throughout human history in ways no other fruit can match.

Consider, for instance, that the fig is the first fruit ever cultivated by humans—perhaps even the very first agricultural crop in human history. If you didn’t know this, perhaps that is because it was just recently discovered: in 2006, three scientists dug up the remains of cultivated figs in the ruins of a prehistoric village near Jericho. These figs were grown some 11,400 years ago—about 1,000 years before the domestication of such staples as wheat, barley and chick peas.The scientists saw their fig fossils as evidence of a defining moment in human history. “In this intentional act of planting a specific variant of fig tree,” said archeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef to the New York Times, “we can see the beginnings of agriculture… There was a critical switch in the human mind. People decided to intervene in nature and supply their own food rather than relying on what was provided by the gods.”

Consider, as well, that figs show up at significant moments in major world religions. According to the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the fig tree provided the very first human clothing when, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves after eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. To paraphrase the archeologist quoted above, this too surely signified a critical switch in the human mind.

Figs are also particularly significant in Buddhism. This religion was born under a fig tree—the Ficus Religiosa, or Bodhi Tree. It was under this tree that a determined spiritual seeker named Siddhartha Guatama sat down one day to meditate. He stayed there for six years, until he found answers to the deepest questions about the meaning of existence. When he finally arose, he became the founder of Buddhism. Today, the sacred fig growing at the Mahabodhi Temple in the Indian state of Bihar is considered a direct descendant of that original tree, and is visited daily by worshippers who place gifts of flowers at the base of its trunk.

Hindus also hold the fig tree as sacred and it is considered auspicious to meditate beneath its branches, and to practice “pradakshina,” a ritual circumambulation around the trunk while chanting “Vrisha Rajaya Namah”, which means “salutations to the king of trees.”

Consider also that the fig’s anatomy is as fascinating as its role in history and religion. A fig is a container of secrets. Not a fruit at all, the fig is actually a rounded hollow branch holding the plant’s flowers, which bloom inwardly, in a process known as infructescence. So what we eat is, in fact, a concentrated package of hidden flowers.

Things get even more interesting when we ask how a hidden flower can be pollinated. Nature’s answer is a specialized insect known as the fig wasp, which exists in a beautiful symbiosis with the fig. This tiny wasp enters the fig through a small orifice called an ostiole, eats the fruity flesh, and pollinates the flower, leaving her eggs behind. The resulting baby wasps mature and then mate—inside the fig. They then chew and wriggle their way out. The males die, and the females fly off, covered in pollen, to enter a new fig, bringing the pollen from the first fig with them.

The catch in this symbiotic relationship is that the female can’t successfully lay eggs in female figs, and thus dies inside. The fig, cleverly, produces enzymes that digest the female wasp’s body, so that it ultimately becomes part of the fruit. This may not be something you want to think about as you enjoy a fig.

As well, consider that figs are incredibly nutritious. They are loaded with vitamins A, B, E and K; they are extremely high in fibre; and full of calcium, iron, copper, zinc and potassium, which help control blood pressure. They are high in immune-system-boosting antioxidants, as well as chlorogenic acids that lower blood sugar levels. They have proven to be beneficial for treating type two diabetes; and they contain significant amounts of luteolin, a powerful anti-inflammatory that has shown to be effective in cancer prevention and treatment.

If you consider all this, you will be truly ready to meet Devmurti and Hari Amrit Khalsa, founders and proprietors of Figs For Life Nursery and Nature Spirit Permaculture Farm, which grows and sells more than 70 varieties of hardy fig trees, as well as a selection of rare fruit and nut trees, basket willows, ground covers and more.

Ripening fig. Photo by Seadance Photography

The Khalsas can be found just about every Saturday selling their seedlings at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market. The rest of the time, they are either tending the orchard, fields, and greenhouses of their heritage Denman Island farm, or teaching Kundalini Yoga at their home-based studio. They love eating figs, growing figs, learning about figs, talking about figs, and selling fig seedlings so that others can do the same.

“A lot of people don’t realize how easily they can grow figs in this climate,” says Devmurti. “But there are so many cultivars of figs, and lots of them grow wonderfully here. They don’t need great soil, are drought tolerant, don’t need spraying or any special care, and they produce like crazy. You can grow figs anywhere in Canada. If you have a sunny deck and an 18-inch pot, that’s enough.” And indeed, through website sales, the Khalsas have sold fig trees as far east as Ontario, establishing themselves as one of Canada’s primary mail order fig seedling sources.

These two enthusiastic fig ambassadors like nothing better than knowing their fig trees have successfully taken root in their clients’ gardens.

“It’s wonderful being at the market when people we’ve sold fig trees to in past years come back to give us excited reports— telling us they got 100 figs that year, and how thrilled they are. It’s sweet!” says Hari Amrit, her final word perhaps unintentionally doing double duty.

Devmurti adds: “We have babies all over Vancouver Island!”

When the Khalsas moved to Denman Island eight years ago, they had never even tasted a fresh fig. Devmurti remembers his first fig, locally grown and locally sold at a Denman Island health food store, and probably picked within hours of eating. Hari Amrit remembers, at about that same time, the two of them riding their bikes along Denman’s oceanside East Road, and seeing a hand-written sign saying “Figs—help yourself.” They parked the bikes and went to explore. “There was this huge old fig tree covered in fruit, and we went and picked as much as we wanted.”

They were already farming. Figs soon became part of the mix, and then the main focus. They like to joke that they couldn’t decide which type of fig they like best, so decided to grow them all. Because the different cultivars mature at different times, they eat fresh figs pretty much every day from June to November.

The Khalsas are thrilled to be part of a burgeoning “grow-your-own-food” trend. This movement has multiple layers of significance—not just culinary, say the Khalsas.
“You can have an intellectual environmentalism, but growing food makes it practical. It creates community and moves us toward a better vision than what’s been presented, by which I mean the commercial-industrial model. There’s a permaculture saying that you can solve the world’s problems in your backyard. So maybe the interest in growing food can bring about a calming of global issues,” says Devmurti. Previous to moving to Denman Island, the Khalsas lived in New Mexico, where growing food organically was a big focus of their lives.

“We had a commercial greenhouse with a partner growing fresh herbs,” says Devmurti. “Also I was the gardener for our spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan [founder of the Hacienda de Guru Ram Dass, where the Khalsas lived for a number of years].”

The move to Denman represented a classic example of turning adversity into opportunity. “My sister and parents were living on a beautiful farm in Alberta, but in the 1980s the surrounding area switched from a green environmental zone to heavy industry. Huge world-class refineries moved in, bringing all kinds of problems with them. The area became poisoned. The government eventually came in and told people not to eat anything grown in the region,” says Devmurti. His sister and parents were ready to move away, and Devmurti and Hari Amrit decided to join them. They were drawn to the BC coast because of the climate, the abundance of natural beauty, and the hope of finding a like-minded community.

A friend told them that Denman would be “their kind of place” and from what they could tell, it was.

“We loved the idea that the only factory on Denman Island is a chocolate factory,” says Devmurti. And they soon found the ideal property—an 80-year-old farm that originally belonged to a pioneering Denman family, the Isbisters. It offers sweeping ocean views and has a deep layer of fertile topsoil sitting on top of nutrient-rich clay. The extended family, along with several horses, moved in, and they began to farm, starting with vegetables and then transitioning to the nursery.

As well as fig seedlings, the Khalsas sell lots of other trees, shrubs, groundcovers, berry bushes, and specialty items such as basket willows. They particularly love to promote plants they feel are under-recognized in this region, plants that can grow well here and provide delicious food.

If he had to recommend one relatively undiscovered tree for this area, Devmurti would choose the Black Mulberry. “They produce lots and lots of fruit, and if you want to know what it tastes like—it’s like a cross between the sweetest, biggest blackberry you’ve ever had in your life, and a jujube candy.”

Like most farmers, the Khalsas have faced challenges and disappointments. By far the worst blow came from a tiny creature—the vole. After falling in love with figs, the Khalsas made a commitment, and planted an orchard with 150 young trees. Unfortunately, voles apparently love fig trees too—at least, they love the bark. Before the Khalsas could notice and take preventative action, voles had chewed off a ring of bark around each and every tree, and the whole orchard was lost.

“It was very sad and very difficult,” says Devmurti. “But we’re re-planting. We’re doing it much more slowly and carefully.” They now wrap their tree trunks in fine wire mesh, which thus far has kept the fig-bark-loving voles away.

All their farming practices are 100 per cent organic. For instance, the Khalsas grow copious amounts of comfrey, which they make into a natural fertilizer, and all pest and weed control is done by hand. Working this way takes patience and perseverance, but the Khalsas like it that way. “It’s time-consuming, but that’s what’s involved in growing things naturally.”

Growing things naturally is at the heart of the Khalsas’ project. “We hope to show others that we can live in harmony with nature. That has to be our legacy here,” says Devmurti. Through growing figs, selling fig trees and other plants, and teaching yoga on their farm, they are sharing that sense of harmony.

“We call our farm Nature Spirit Permaculture,” says Devmurti. “This reflects the idea that you can make where you live a paradise. You can grow your own food, and you can grow ornamental plants that are beautiful and that attract butterflies and birds. You can create abundance around you.”

At the Khalsas’ farm, there’s definitely more to the fig than you might think.

For more information visit