With their large, leathery leaves and famed sweet fruit, figs lend an exotic, tropical air to any yard where they are grown. Though they typically will not survive outdoors in climates where winter temperatures regularly dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, figs can be grown as large container plants. Plants which are top-killed by unexpectedly low temperatures in otherwise safe growing ranges frequently re-generate from the roots.
Figs are one of the oldest known cultivated fruits, with remnants of the fruit and plant appearing in Neolithic sites from as far back as 5,000 B.C. Thought to be native to western Asia, the fig spread through human cultivation to every continent, and was already established in China during the mid 1500s. Though the tree arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, commercial fruit cultivation in California did not begin in earnest until the 1900s, when the pollinator wasp species essential for mass production of certain types of figs was introduced.
The fig tree (Ficus carica) is the only member of its genus which produces fruit, with most other Ficus members being giant rubber trees native to tropical areas. Four types of fig tree are grown either as domestic fruit trees or for commercial cultivation, and all are soft-wooded, short-statured trees generally reaching no more than 30 feet in height. Trees tend to have a shrubby appearance and are rarely trained to a single central stem.
The hairy, leathery leaves are dark green above and lighter green below, lobed and up to a foot in length. The familiar fruit of the fig is actually an extension of modified stem tissue, or synconium, and the edible portions of the ripe fruit are ripened ovaries of the flowers contained within the structure. The tree’s milky latex sap is a skin irritant.
Care and Culture
Though figs are commonly grown in warmer climates, figs are shallow-rooted and can be easily damaged by drought. During summer months, figs require daily irrigation, though over-watering can suffocate roots and lead to rapid decline. Avoid over-feeding with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, since this will promote lush foliage growth but little or no fruit production. Young trees should not be pruned until their fourth or fifth year, if at all; excess pruning will critically reduce fruit yields since fig fruits are produced on old as well as new wood. Figs will require protection in winter at the edge of its growing range, either by planting the tree on a southern exposure or by physically covering the tree when especially low temperatures are forecast.
Three types of figs are grown for commercial cultivation: Caprifig, Smyrna and San Pedro. Each of these requires a pollinator wasp for successful fruit production. But mainly because fruits develop without a pollinator insect, the common fig is the type best known to home gardeners and what is usually available for sale in nurseries and landscape centers. Popular varieties include ‘Brown Turkey,’ a cold-resistant variety which bears brownish-purple fruit; ‘Celeste,’ a very cold hardy type with small purplish fruits; and ‘Brunswick,’ a long-ripening type which bears bronze-colored, medium to large fruits with very tender skins.
Rootknot nematode is the primary pest of figs, and is one reason figs have historically been grown as “dooryard trees”: figs which are grown directly adjacent to a wall can direct its roots under the neighboring structure and are less susceptible to nematode attack. Though the best prevention is to buy healthy, pest-free specimens and plant them in nematode-free soil, nematicide treatment can help treat trees which later become infested.
Fig rust is a fungal disease of the tree’s leaves which can cause defoliation of the plant, treatable by copper sprays specifically for fungal infections. Also, mildew can be a problem in plants which do not receive adequate morning light.