There is something for me that is nostalgic about figs. They take me back in time when screen doors and windows were left unlocked and opened and when catching fireflies in the fields trumped anything else that was going on that night.
I am always amazed at how many people have never eaten a fig. Their flavor is a delicate combination of peaches and strawberries and can be eaten alone, or added to many recipes. Though dried figs are available throughout the year, there is nothing like the unique taste of a fresh fig. Growing and caring for fig trees is extremely simple and the maintenance is minimal.
So what about figs?
Figs can trace their history back to the earliest of times with mentions in the Bible and other ancient writings. They are thought to have been first cultivated in Egypt. They spread to ancient Crete and then to ancient Greece around the 9th century BC, where they became a staple food in their diets. Figs were held in high esteem by the Greeks, so much that they created laws forbidding the export of quality figs. Figs were also revered in ancient Rome where they were thought of as a sacred fruit. Later, they would be introduced to other regions of the Mediterranean by ancient conquerors and then brought to the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniards in the early 16th century.
So you want to grow a fig tree?
Growth Habit: The fig is a deciduous tree and grows up to to 50 ft tall, but more typically to a height of 10 – 30 ft. Their branches are muscular and twisting, spreading wider than they are tall. Fig wood is weak and decays rapidly. We try to keep ours at picking height and let it get as wide as it wants to.
The sap : It’s always a good idea to wear long sleeves and gloves…the sap and rough leaf texture of a fig tree can make for some itchy skin and some nasty allergy reactions.
Foliage: Fig leaves are bright green, single, with a rough hairy surface. They are known to have anti-diabetic properties when ingested or made into teas. During spring and summer, leaves are bountiful, but during winter you will be left with only branches. These leaves can be irritating, so again, use some protection between your skin and the leaves.
Location: Full sun & lots of room- remember, when planting and searching for a location, that the roots invade garden beds.
Planting: If you are growing your figs in a row, plant the trees 15 to 20 feet apart. Prune your new plants back a little when you plant them. It is better to plant them a little deeper than they were growing in the nursery, about 2 to 3 inches deeper. The best planting time for bare-root plants is in the late winter – late January and February. Potted plants can be planted any time.
Pruning: You don’t have to prune a fig tree; they will still yield lots of fruit, but you may want to tame this big beast now and then or you will need a crane to pick your figs. Never heavily prune in winter because it will affect the next year’s crop, instead, prune right after harvesting.
Fertilization: Compost and well-rotted mature are the very best fertilizer for fig trees, but commercial fertilizers can be used. Apply a balanced fertilizer about three times a year – spring, early summer and mid-summer. On a medium-sized tree apply 2 to 3 cups of a balanced fertilizer in a circle from about a foot from the trunks to the drip line and then work it into the soil. Do not apply any fertilizer in the fall since it can cause the trees to put on new growth when the plant is nearing the first frost, causing damage. Caution: Do not use any fertilizer the first year after planting; let the trees get established first.
Irrigation: Figs and water go together, but too much water is harmful. Keep the soil moist, but not wet constantly. This water can come from rainfall or irrigation so test the soil at least 2 inches below the surface for soil moisture and irrigate as necessary. Heavy rain or standing water can cause the fruit to split and spoil and if water stands on the plants for long periods, it can cause the plants to die.
Flowers: Though figs have flowers, they go unnoticed and are actually inside the green “fruit”. Bees and other pollinators actually go through an opening in the fruit to pollinate it. Pollinated seeds provide the characteristic nutty taste of dried figs.
Fruits Crop: There are two crops for the fig tree: The first comes in the spring on last season’s growth. The second crop comes in the fall on the new growth and is known as the main crop. We are fortunate enough to have 2 huge crops per year.
There are hundreds of fig varieties but the following are most commonly found in U.S. farms and markets. Here are just a few:
Brown Turkey Figs: Brownish / copper-colored skin, often with hints of purple, and mostly pink/red flesh with some white flesh.
Celeste figs : Egg sized, purplish-brown when ripe, and a dark, sweet, moist, purple flesh inside.
The Calimyrna Fig: Has a nut-like flavor and golden skin. Eaten as is.
The Mission Fig: Got its name from mission priest who planted the fruit in along the coast of California in 1769. This fig is a deep purple which darkens to a rich black when dried.
The Kadota Fig: Is a trickster to birds since they are green when ripened, birds tend to leave them alone. Also known as the “Peter’s Honey” fig, it is nearly seedless.
How to know when a fig is ripe
Color – Figs come in all colors from yellow, brown, red to purple, black and many others so know what color your fig is supposed to be, so you know when it’s ready.
Texture – Ripe Figs Become soft like a peach when ripe. Don’t let them sit too long…a mushy fig can be a messy fig.
Fig Picking Tips-Figs grow on low, open trees, with no thorns and soft leaves, so they’re very easy to pick! The ripe figs will separate easily from the tree when you lift them upwards from their normal drooping position. The ripe figs definitely droop a bit and feel softer. Unripe figs are harder, more firmly attached, and do not droop. Figs must be picked ripe from the trees, since they do not ripen once picked.
Storing fresh figs
Figs won’t last long at room temperature. I found this out the hard way. I once picked buckets upon buckets of fresh figs and left them on the counter until I could get to them a few days later. Unfortunately, they became chicken and worm food :(. The fridge will keep them for a few days, but only a few…so check on them often.
- Figs date back to 9400-9200 B.C. and were considered the “fruit of the gods”
- Figs are high in calcium, 3.5 ounces of figs provide 16 % of your daily recommendation. and 1/2 cup of figs is the same as a 1/2 cup of milk
- Fig trees have no blossoms on their branches
- Figs hold moisture in baked goods and keep them fresher longer
- Figs are the sweetest of all fruits at 55% sugar content
- Figs can be used as a fat substitution in recipes using half the amount as you would butter or oil
- 3-4 figs have more fiber than a cup of oatmeal
- In Roman times, figs were thought to restore vitality and keep you young and free of wrinkles
- In the 16th century, the Spaniards introduced Mission figs to California territory
- In the early olympics, figs were used as a training food much like a Power Bar today
- Fig Newtons made their first appearance in 1892
- The Mission San Diego priests planted figs throughout California in 1769, hence the name “Mission Figs”
- The fig is a symbol of fertility, abundance and sweetness
- California produces 98 percent of the nation’s figs and 100% of the nation’s dried figs
If you don’t have a fig tree already, I encourage you to get one, even if it’s on the patio or porch. It’s a wonderful addition to the garden and the possibilities for using figs are endless.
Check out our blogs on some ways to preserve, can, and dry figs.
Until next time,