Growing up along the Texas gulf coast, most people I knew had at least one fig tree. The trees were often planted on the South side of a shed, a barn or even the house to give them some protection from cold North winds and to speed up foliage drying from dew or rain. Most of these trees were gifts from other growers. Texas Everbearing (AKA Brown Turkey) and Celeste were the most common varieties I remember and are still widely planted now.
The fig (Ficus carica) originated from the Western Asia and Mediterranean region and has been cultivated since 5000 BC and there is some evidence that figs may have been in cultivation as early as 9000 BC which makes it potentially the oldest cultivated crop. Figs are often mentioned in the Old Testament along with pomegranates and grapes. As it turns out all three of these plants propagate well from cuttings and are relatively easy to grow – these characteristics likely account for their widespread popularity in ancient times. The fig was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish in Florida in the 1500’s and then later to California. There are 3 main types of figs grown for fruit production – the Smyrna, the San Pedro and the common fig. Of these, only the common fig is suitable for our area.
The fruit of the fig is known as a “syconium” – a hollow fleshy structure that has very small flowers inside. Some types of figs require a tiny wasp to fertilize these flowers, but our common fig varieties are “parthenocarpic” and fruit without pollination. Since they do not require pollination, a single tree will be self-fruitful.
Our fig trees are usually grown as a large shrub or small multitrunked tree to 20 feet tall. The trees are cold sensitive and especially cold winters may kill some branches or the whole tree to the ground. Fortunately, figs readily resprout from the roots. Some growers cover the base of their trees with hay or other loose mulch to protect the trees during severe cold snaps.
Figs do best in full sun and in well drained soil. The fig root system is fibrous and can be somewhat shallow so even moisture during the growing season is desirable for good production. Mulching the tree helps with moisture retention and with weed suppression. Figs only need moderate fertilization – too much fertilizer will produce lush tender growth at the expense of fruit production and may also increase freeze damage. Small applications of nitrogen during the early growing season are usually all figs need. It is typical to grow figs with 4 to 6 trunks but if desired, figs can be grown with more trunks or pruned to a single trunk. Once the desired shape is reached, little additional pruning is needed – usually just removing root suckers and cold-damaged limbs. If you want to try your hand at propagation, figs are a great plant to start with. Hardwood cuttings taken after the trees are dormant will root very well over winter in either potting soil or in good garden soil.
Figs have few pest and disease problems and often need no special treatment to do well. A fungal problem – fig rust – can sometimes become serious enough in particularly wet years to warrant treatment with a copper fungicide. The dried fruit beetle can also sometimes cause problems. Removing fallen fruit and selecting varieties resistant to the pest can reduce damage from this beetle. Root knot nematodes can damage fig roots enough to weaken the tree, so it is best to plant where the soil does not have the pest.
The recommended fig varieties for our area are those with good cold tolerance that also produce fruit with a tightly closed “eye” – the opening at the end of the fruit opposite the stem. An eye that is tightly closed reduces souring of the fruit due to rain and helps to keep pests out of the fruit. The varieties Texas Everbearing, Celeste and Alma have a good track record in our area. If I only had room for one tree, it would be Celeste. The “Aggie Horticulture” web site mentions several other varieties that might also be worth a try. As you might expect with such a tasty fruit, a host of critters (birds, deer, racoons, possums, squirrels, etc.) enjoy figs as much as we do and will help themselves to the crop. Nectar seeking insects like wasps and bees will also seek out damaged and over-ripe fruit in the tree and on the ground – look before you pick!
Most fig varieties produce a single crop from summer to early fall. A few varieties also produce an early crop – known as a Breba crop – in late spring before the main crop. Figs do not ripen off the tree and so must be harvested fully ripe. Fully ripe figs will turn a mature color, the skin will become soft and less shiny, and the fruit will droop downward. Mature color varies by variety and can be yellow, brown, maroon or purple. During peak production, fruit may need to be picked every one to two days. Although the bible mentions using fig leaves as clothing, I do not recommend it. The leaves are scratchy, and figs produce a latex-like sap that can be a skin irritant. Some people are particularly sensitive to the fig tree and wear long
sleeves and gloves when harvesting.
Ripe figs are perishable and are best consumed or processed shortly after harvest. My grandchildren like them best right off the tree. Figs can be kept for 2 or 3 days in the coldest part of the refrigerator – they should then be brought to room temperature for best flavor. For longer term storage figs can be processed by drying, freezing, canning, pickling and preserving in alcohol.
Figs are a good source of dietary fiber, several minerals and vitamin K. Figs and nuts are a natural tasty combination. There are lots of recipes with walnuts and pine nuts. I particularly like them paired with our native Texas pecans. The sweetness of figs is a natural foil for salty cheeses like blue cheese and for salty and/or smokey meats like bacon, ham and prosciutto. Fresh figs are wonderful in a salad especially with a bit of balsamic vinegar and olive oil in the mix. There are hundreds of desert and savory recipes using preserved figs as well. A truly classic southern breakfast treat is a buttered biscuit with fig preserves.
Figs have been a part of human history for an exceptionally long time and trees were often considered a sign of peace and prosperity as in “Each man under his own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4). If you have a nice sunny spot, an easy to grow fig tree might be just the thing.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor