Originally from Asia Minor, the fig is probably the oldest cultivated fruit in the world. There is evidence to suggest that some 10,000 years ago some of us were planting figs directly outside our caves presumably to be able to slip out for a figgy delight without worrying too much about getting torn to shreds by a Sabre tooth tiger.
Man and fig have come a long way since then but have remained very much good friends, travelling and setting up home together all over the world where summers are warm and dry and winters are cool.
Common name - Common Fig - Adriatic Fig - Symrna Fig
Family- Moraceae (same family as Mulberry)
Native Range - A temperate species native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean region (from Afghanistan to Portugal).
Description - A tall deciduous shrub or small tree reaching a height of about 10m. Single or multi stemmed.
Uses - The fruit is eaten fresh, dried in confectionery, brewed as an alcoholic beverage or used as a laxative. The fruit is a source of calcium, sugar, iron, copper, carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamin A. The leaves are used as potherbs or fed to livestock. The tree is also grown for shade and has value in the ornamental garden.
Fruit - Fruits generally ripen from August - October depending on cultivar and climate. Some trees produce what is called a breba which are fig fruits that develop in the spring on the previous year's shoot growth, followed by the main fig crop that develops on the current year's shoot growth and ripens in late summer or fall. In cold climates the breba crop is often destroyed by spring frosts.
Ecology - Fig fruit is an important food source for much of the fauna in some areas, and the tree owes its expansion to those that feed on its fruit. Seed is dispersed by birds and mammals that scatter the seeds in droppings. We often find various bees and wasps feeding on openings in the fruit made by birds. We'll leave some of the fruit on the tree for other organisms and always have plenty of figs.
- Common: do not require pollination for fruit set
- San Pedro: requires no pollination for the first crop (called the breba crop) but requires pollination of the second crop
- Caduceus/Smyrna : requires pollination in order to set fruit
- Capri or Male: usually non-edible figs in which the pollinator lives
Cold Hardy Fig Cultivars - Although often considered a Mediterranean plant there are many figs that have been cultivated to withstand cold climates in some cases withstanding winter lows of -20C.
Young figs are more sensitive to cold winters than larger figs so it's best to over winter young plants perhaps even grow on in a pot until a good root system has established especially if you are growing fig on the limits of the climatic conditions they are accustomed to.
The fruits are small but numerous and sweet when ripe which can be from early as late August through to early October. In a hot dry summer like we have had this year, the fruits can be left on the tree to dry and keep well into the winter. Picking them ripe, splitting them in two and leaving in the car, parked in the sun for a few days is also very effective.
We're also growing 'Izmir' a Turkish cultivar.
We grow a range of hardy fig cultivars from our bionursery. You can find more info on our hardy cultivars below.
For a list of other cultivars suitable for growing in temperate climates with cold winters, see here.
Fig Cultivation - How to grow fig
Where to Plant your Fig - Figs require full sun all day to ripen palatable fruits. Some cultivars can become enormous, and will shade out plants growing beneath so select a site that the tree can grow into. Trying to reduce size by pruning the branch length causes loss of crop.
Fig Root Invasiveness - Fig tree roots generally are very invasive, although much depends on the cultivar, its planting location, and the overall soil quality. Most fig trees, if they are planted in optimal conditions, spread their roots far and wide and sometimes the roots can choke out other plants and can damage sidewalks, driveways and other objects in their paths. Fig trees usually do best on the outskirts of a garden or surrounded by plenty of open space. In order to minimize root invasion some growers will plant trees in pots or build underground retaining walls to keep the roots structured.
Celeste or Malta fig trees typically keep their root systems more or less contained, larger trees such as the brown turkey fig trees have more of a tendency to dominate a space.
Fig Pruning - Pruning is recommended only during the initial years. Trees should be trained according to use of fruit, such as a low crown for fresh-market figs. Since the crop is borne on terminals of previous year's wood, once the tree form is established, avoid heavy winter pruning, which causes loss of the following year's crop. If a mature tree has died back during a cold winter the following spring will bring many new shoots and we have found it good practice to thin these out to all but 10-12 stems. Further thinning (of the now bush like plant) will help improve access, air circulation and will result in fewer but higher quality fruits. We remove any mature stems that are touching each other or appear crowded.
Fig branches and leaves contain a milky sap that is irritating to human skin so when pruning and harvesting it's good to wear gloves.
Irrigation requirements - In most Mediterranean countries figs are grown as rain-fed but the most critical period of irrigation is early spring before rapid shoot and fruit development. Around 750mm of annual rainfall is considered sufficient to produce a good crop. Rain or heavy irrigation during fruit development and ripening can cause the fruits to split.
Pests and Diseases Problems: Problems are mainly encountered when trees are under stress and good practices will prevent most problems. We have never experienced any disease or pest but do lose some of the crop to birds.
In some cases, a young, healthy fig tree undergoes proper pollination and fruit set, then drops all its fruit suddenly. This phenomenon is usually caused by overfeeding. It may take three to four years for the fig to recover from over-fertilisation and produce a crop that ripens and stays on the tree. Avoid using shop bought liquid feeds, instead use good compost fed at the base of the plant (20 L in the spring) and you should not experience this.
Figs are generally propagated by cuttings and for commercial plantations by tissue culture. We have had success with hard wood cuttings taken in late autumn/early winter planted inside and outside into a free draining medium (50% river sand 50% sieved compost). We've also had good results from division (digging out sections of the root system that has sent out new shoots) and layering. The key to success is to water the cuttings well during dry periods. Another good method that can be practiced at anytime of year is taking 15cm cuttings of second year growth and placing then in 10cm of water. Clean the water when it starts going green (every 5-7 days) and plant out when a good root system starts to form.
Fig pollination is fascinating but not great news for fig loving vegetarians.
What we call the fig fruit is actually a flower or to be more precise an inflorescence - a cluster of many flowers and seeds contained inside a bulbous stem. Because of this unusual arrangement, the seeds—technically the ovaries of the fig—require a specialized pollinator that is adapted to navigate within the fruit and here begins the story of the relationship between figs and fig wasps.
The queen of the fig wasp is almost the perfect size for the job and enters through a tight opening in the fig called the ostiole.
Bad news for vegetarians thus being when you eat fig you probably eat wasp however, common fig types have all female flowers that do not need pollination for fruiting as the fruit can develop through parthenocarpic means. Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, and Celeste are some representative cultivars.
Companion Plants for Figs - Fig Polycultures
The fig tree, having an extensive shallow root system and in maturity casting a heavy shade, generally inhibits the growth of plants directly growing under the crown. Over the years, however, I have observed the below list of plants growing along with the fig, some of which we planted others naturally occurring.
I leave our fig trees to branch low to the ground for ease of picking the fruits. This results in a very deep shade cast under the plant and as a result the Comfrey and Artichoke produce little biomass in the summer. Under plantings do grow well before the fig leaves emerge in late spring, Tuberous Comfrey in particular forms a dense mat and flowers profusely before dying back during the summer when the fig is in full leaf.
When companion planting with fig, it is best to select early flowering plants that yield before May and can tolerate deep shade during the summer months. We have experimented with bulbs (included below) that utilize nutrients during the dormant season, provide early nectar and pollen to bees and other pollinators, and provide beauty contrasted against the grey frame of the winter fig.
Growing Figs commercially
Irrigation: Depending on soil types and farmers’ preferences, sprinklers and drips are used. The equivalent of 750mm annual rainfall is sufficient to produce a good crop.