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Growing Edible Figs: Ficus carica

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Overview

A member of the Mulberry family, the genus ficus has 850 species, of which one, Ficus carica, is commercially grown for edible fruit. Ficus carica has thousands of cultivar names and is grown throughout the temperate world.

Fig trees fall into four types named Caprifig, Smyrna, San Pedro, and Common. Caprifigs are the only fig type having male flowers and host a specialized fig wasp for all Ficus carica trees. They produce three crops of inedible fruit a year. Smyrna fig trees produce one crop a year if pollinated by the fig wasp with Caprifig pollen. Commercial growers may grow three to five Caprifigs for every 100 Smyrna figs in an orchard. San Pedro figs produce their first (breba) fruit crop in the spring without pollination, but need pollination for the second (main) crop. Common figs do not require pollination and are the cultivars of choice for home gardens.

Description

Form: Multi-branched shrub or tree.
Lifespan: Over 40 years. Productivity is highest in the first 12-15 years, then slowly declines.
Leaf retention: Deciduous.
Growth rate: Moderate to rapid.
Mature Size: 10-30' high and as wide.
Flowers and Fruit: A hollow, flask-shaped, modified stem, called a synconium (the fig fruit), is lined on the inside with numerous female flowers facing toward the center. A small hole (ostiole or 'eye') visible on the end of the fruit, opposite the stem, allows a fig wasp to enter the fruit and pollinate the flowers. Some cultivars have a closed 'eye' and reduced insect access. Caprifig types also have male flowers inside, next to the eye, and provide pollen for other fig types that need it.
Insect and fungal penetration of the fruit is a frequent problem that results in sour fruit and can ruin an entire crop. Only some closed eye cultivars avoid the sour fruit problem entirely. Some cultivars with open eyes produce a drop of 'honey' that blocks the eye and seals it from incursions until washed away by rain.
Bloom: Fig production is climate dependant, often twice a year in spring and summer, in successive waves. In warm climates, a third crop is produced. The next crop starts before the current crop has finished ripening. Some varieties with "everbearing" in the name produce almost continuously, although with peaks and valleys of production. Depending on the region grown and the cultivar, the first (breba) crop, which grows on old wood from the year before, can be susceptible to late frost. The second (main) crop grows on new wood. A third crop may not have enough warmth to mature.
Self-fruitful: Yes. Most fig varieties are common figs which can produce fruit without pollination and without viable seeds. All fig varieties described below are common figs unless otherwise noted.
Years before fruiting: 3-5 years.
Months for fruit to ripen: 2-4, depending on cultivar and growing environment. Figs need high temperatures to ripen properly. They are ripe when they become larger and change color, when they become soft, and when they droop at the attachment point. The stem of an unripe fig will ooze milky sap when the fig is picked. No sap appears when a ripe fig is harvested. Figs do not ripen all at once on a tree. Main crop figs often ripen in succession from the base of a branch to the top. They do not ripen further once picked.
Storage after harvest: Immediately after harvesting, place in refrigerator for up to 5 days. Drying, or cooking in a sugar solution and then canning or freezing are other ways of preserving figs. Some fig varieties cannot be dried because they spoil soon after harvest, others are very resistant to spoilage and dry well.
Leaves: Green, large, deeply lobed with 3-5 lobes.
Stems: No thorns, weak. Trunk and branches are sensitive to heat and sun damage and should be painted with white tree trunk paint if exposed to summer sun.
Roots: Aggressive, growing far beyond the tree canopy, sometimes deep. For larger and more vigorous cultivars, keep this tree away from any structure to avoid root damage. Invasive in moist areas. The roots of this tree tend to rob water from other areas and plants in a yard because of their long reach. Occasionally a cultivar is grafted onto the rootstock of a more vigorous fig cultivar.
Cultivars by Flavor Category:
Notes: The figs listed below are common figs except where noted. There is often little difference in flavor between figs in the same flavor category. Climate and soil also affect flavor.
Citrus Berry / Adriatic
'Ischia Green' closed eye, small to medium fruit, pale green skin, strawberry red flesh, citrus berry flavor. The tree grows 10-15' high, USDA 7-10.
'Panachée' / 'Panache' / 'Tiger Stripe' closed eye, small to medium fruit, yellow and green striped skin, red flesh, raspberry citrus flavor. It does not produce a Breba crop, but does produce a main crop and fall crop on new wood. This vigorous tree grows 12' high, USDA 8-9. This cultivar is popular in home gardens because of its excellent flavor. It must be eaten fresh or processed immediately because it deteriorates too rapidly for drying.
'Strawberry Verte' closed eye, small to medium fruit, pale green skin, strawberry red flesh, citrus berry flavor. Considered better tasting than 'Ischia Green', otherwise similar. The tree grows 10-15' high, USDA 7-10.
Honey Berry Flavor
'Desert King' medium open eye, small fruit, yellow skin, strawberry red flesh, honey berry flavor. This San Pedro type fig produces a large Breba crop but no main crop without caprification (pollination by the fig wasp). The tree grows 8-10' high, USDA 6-10.
Punch Berry Flavor
'Mt Etna' / 'Hardy Chicago' / 'Marseilles Black' small eye, small fruit, dark purple skin, strawberry red flesh, punch berry flavor. The tree grows 15-30' high and as wide, USDA 5-10. May be trimmed yearly to keep at 6' height. This plant is well adapted to cold, wet, northern climates.
Resin Berry / Bordeaux Flavor
'Black Jack' closed eye, purple to black skin, red flesh, resin berry flavor. The tree grows 15' tall and as wide, USDA 8b-11. A good container plant.
'Black Mission' closed eye, purple to black skin, red flesh, resin berry flavor. The tree grows 25-30' tall and as wide, USDA 8b-11. A very reliable, huge tree.
'Petite Negra' small eye, medium fruit with purple-black skin, red flesh, resin berry flavor. Dwarf The tree grows 4-8' tall, USDA 7-10. A good container plant.
'Violette de Bordeaux' medium open eye, small fruit with purple-black skin, red flesh, resin berry flavor. Dwarf The tree grows 6-10' tall, 4-5' wide, USDA 5-10. A good container plant.
Honey Flavor
'Kadota' open eye filled with honey drop, medium fruit, yellow-green skin, amber flesh, faint honey flavor. The tree grows 15-25' high, USDA 7-10.
'Peter's Honey' open eye filled with honey drop, yellow-green skin, dark amber flesh, light honey flavor. The tree grows 15-25' high and wide, USDA 7-10.
Sugar Flavors
'Brown Turkey' open eye, frequent insect penetration resulting in sour figs, small to medium fruit, brown to purple skin, red flesh, sugar flavor. Needing a dry, hot summer to ripen properly, it is climate dependent and unreliable in producing quality fruit in regions with summer rains. Vigorous roots make it suitable as a rootstock for grafting other fig cultivars. The tree grows 15-25' tall and as wide, USDA 7-9.
'Improved Celeste' / 'Celestial' partially open eye, medium fruit, light brown to purple skin, caramel pink flesh, sugar flavor. The tree grows 5-10' tall and as wide, USDA 7-11. A good container plant.
'LSU Purple' closed eye, medium fruit, purple skin shows shallow splits as fruit matures, light red flesh, caramel to maple sugar flavor. The tree grows 8-10' tall and as wide, USDA 7-10. A good container plant.
'Texas Everbearing' partially open eye, medium to very large fruit, red-brown to purple skin, amber flesh, sugar flavor. The tree grows 10' tall and as wide, USDA 6-11. A good container plant.
Wildlife: Attracts birds, especially figs that turn dark. Green and light-colored figs attract less attention.
In some regions, the fig wasp, Blastophaga psenes, will visit. Each fig species has its own species of fig wasp, so native fig wasps are not attracted to the edible fig. When the edible fig wasp is present, it is being sustained by Caprifig type fig trees growing somewhere in the area.
Toxic / Danger: Sap is a skin and eye irritant. Unripe fruit are poisonous.
Origin: Arabia and Mesopotamia. Domesticated over 11,000 years ago.

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 5-11, depending on cultivar. Fully dormant trees are hardy to 12-15°F. Trees in active growth can be injured at 30°F.
Chill hours: Most cultivars need 100 hours or less.
Heat tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Full sun.
Drought tolerant: Yes, with loss of food crop.
Water after becoming established: Deeply, once a week when fruiting starts, to twice a week during the hottest months of the year. Yellow and dropped leaves, fruit drop, and fruit shriveling before becoming ripe are signs of insufficient water. Trees receiving insufficient water are more prone to root nematodes. Overwatering can cause all of the leaves of the tree to turn yellow at the same time.
Reduce irrigation to once a month from late fall through late winter to avoid freeze damage.
Soil: Well drained, tolerant otherwise.
Fertilize: Fertilize only if the tree has not grown 12" in the past year. Use organic fertilizer, three times in the year, early March, mid April, and late June. Spread evenly out to the drip line, staying one foot away from the trunk. Water immediately.
Mulch: Heavily with organic material such as straw or hay to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress in summer.
First Year Care: Young fig trees are not drought tolerant and should be watered every two days during the growing season. Wilting leaves are a signal to irrigate. Do not fertilize in the first year.
Planting: Smaller fig plants can be grown in a container.
Two soil diseases that attack figs are Crown Gall (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) and Cotton or Texas Root Rot (Phymatotrichopsis). Avoid soils where plants have exhibited these diseases.
Do not plant anything under a fig tree to avoid water competition.
Planting fig trees closely together will cause competition for water, with the older/larger tree winning out. These trees will need more water in their vicinity to grow fruit properly to maturity.
Prune: When dormant, prune to shape in first four years. Pruning branches will reduce the first crop because that crop grows on old wood. Cultivars such as 'Kadota' bear a heavy crop and young fruit must be thinned so the remainder can grow to full size. Do not prune in fall before the plant loses its leaves and becomes dormant, otherwise it will start new growth. If a third crop is produced, twist off the fruit on the first day of winter because the colder weather will not allow the figs to properly ripen. Leaving the figs on the stem may make it more prone to frost damage if a freeze does occur.
Litter: Leaf drop in fall or winter. Fig drop if not harvested. Remove fallen fruit immediately to prevent fungal disease, wild animal visits, and breeding insects.
Propagation: Cuttings or layering. Seed does not breed true.
Pests: Open 'eye' cultivars sometimes experience insect and/or fungus intrusion, causing a sour taste to fruit. Heavy summer rains can cause fruit to swell and open a closed eye, leading to fungal or insect intrusion and sour fruit.
Insect pests include Cotinis mutabilis, the Green Fig Beetle (Figeater Beetle), often mistaken for the green June Beetle, and stink bugs.
Fig mosaic virus is introduced by mites or by cuttings. Some fig varieties, such as 'Black Mission', are affected more than others. Symptoms resemble potassium deficiency and include appearance of a leaf mosaic pattern, defoliation, distortion and chlorosis of leaves, decreased fruit yield and yellow spotting on fruit. The best defense is to be choosy about where your cuttings, seedlings, and potted plants come from, and to provide the tree with a proper microclimate and sufficient water. Otherwise healthy trees will often recover from symptoms the following year.
Mites can be controlled with horticultural oils. Beetles can be controlled by removing mulch, organic material, and leaf litter from the top of the soil to starve and expose the larvae, but fig beetles can travel across a yard to lay eggs away from the fig tree. Traps made of containers with water and cut fruit at the bottom can be placed under trees to attract the beetles. A neem seed extract such as Azamax can be used to kill beetles. Neem seed meal or neem seed cake, can be spread on the ground in the vicinity of the fig tree to act as a beetle deterrent.
Rats, gophers, deer and javelina can also be a problem. Gophers can be partly handled by growing the fig in a very large, underground, metal basket.
Uses: Edible fruit, ornamental.

Fig Plant Problems

No figs are produced
[1] The plant is not mature. Fig plants do not produce fruit until they are 3-5 years old. [2] The plant may have been fertilized with too much nitrogen. Growing in the ground, fig trees do not need to be fertilized unless they grow less than 12" in one year. [3] Winter pruning has reduced or eliminated the old wood on which the spring crop grows. New growth may produce a fall crop. [4] The plant is growing in a container and has run out of nutrients after several years with regular fertilization. It should be repotted with new soil.
Figs drop off before ripening
[1] The plant is watered inconsistently, especially after fruit set. Water on a consistent basis. [2] The tree is being watered only at the trunk and not over the entire root area. A fig tree's roots can spread beyond the tip of its branches (drip line). Water at least the entire area inside the drip line. [3] The plant may be a Smyrna or San Pedro type which needs pollination by the fig wasp. If the fig wasp is not present in your area, its figs will drop off when small. Grow a common type fig to avoid this. [4] Weather - rapid temperature fluctuations between hot and cold. [5] Plant diseases such as Fig Mosaic Virus can cause fruit drop. Various fungal diseases may occur if the tree receives too much rain or is overwatered, also leading to fruit drop.
Figs do not ripen
[1] Figs need a hot summer to ripen. If temperatures are too low, ripening may not occur. This is especially true of a third crop. Any third crop figs should be twisted off on the first day of winter or just before a predicted freeze because they will not ripen properly and their presence makes the branch more susceptible to freezing. [2] Insufficient water will cause the plant to go into survival mode and stop ripening its fruit.

Comments

Many fig tree varieties sold under different names appear to be the same variety. For example, 'Mt Etna', 'Hardy Chicago' and 'Marseilles Black' are very similar. So are 'Panachée' and 'Tiger Stripe'. When differences between similar varieties are reported, it is often due to growing in different microclimates. Also, pot-grown figs show more variability from year to year than those grown in the ground.


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