The common fig (Ficus carica) is a small tree native to southwest Asia but widely planted in North America. This edible fig is widely grown for its fruit and is commercially grown in the U.S. in California, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
The fig has been around since the dawn of civilization and was one of the first plants ever to be cultivated by humans.
There are no native temperate figs in the U.S. Members of the fig family are located in tropical forests of the extreme southern portion of North America. The first documented fig tree brought to the New World was planted in Mexico in 1560. Figs were then introduced into California in 1769.
Many varieties have since been imported from Europe and into the U.S. The common fig reached Virginia and the eastern United States in 1669 and adapted well. From Virginia, fig planting and cultivation spread to the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
The fig tree’s deciduous leaves are palmate, deeply divided into three to seven main lobes, and irregularly toothed on the margins. The blade is up to 10 inches in length and width, fairly thick, rough on the upper surface, and softly hairy on the underside.
Fig trees are susceptible to breakage, either at the crotch due to poor collar formation, or the wood itself is weak and tends to break.
Fig trees have been raised from seed, even seeds extracted from commercially dried fruits. Ground or air-layering can be done satisfactorily, but the tree is most commonly propagated by cuttings of mature wood two to three years of age, one-half to three-quarters inches thick and eight to 12 inches long.
Planting must be done within 24 hours. The upper, slant cut end of the cutting should be treated with a sealant to protect it from disease, and the lower, flat end with a root-promoting hormone.
Celeste: A pear-shaped fruit with a short neck and slender stalk. The fruit is small to medium and the skin is purplish-brown.
Brown Turkey: Broad-pyriform, usually without a neck. The fruit is medium to large and copper-colored. The main crop, beginning in mid-July, is large.
Brunswick: Fruits of the main crop are oblique-turbinate, mostly without a neck. The fruit is of medium size and appears bronze or purple-brown.
Marseilles: Fruits of the main crop are round to oblate without a neck and grow on slender stalks.
Figs in the Landscape
“Southern Living” magazine says that, in addition to being a delicious fruit, figs make beautiful trees in the “Middle, Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South.” Figs are versatile and easy to grow. They grow the perfect fruit, they love the heat, and the insects just seem to ignore them.
You will have to share your tree with birds that flock in for a meal and partake of the fruits of your labor. This tree is a birder’s dream but a fruit picker’s nightmare. Netting may be used to discourage fruit damage.
Protection From Cold
Figs can’t stand temperatures that consistently fall below 0 degrees F. Still, you can actually get away with growing figs in colder climates if planted against a south-facing wall to benefit from the radiant heat. Figs also grow well and look great when espaliered against a wall.
When temperatures dip below 15 degrees, mulch or cover trees with fabric. Protect the roots of container-growing figs by moving them indoors or transplant them to a frost-free area when temperatures fall below 20 degrees F. Avid fig growers in cold climates actually dig up the root ball, lay the tree in a mulching ditch, and cover with their preferred compost or mulch.
The Extraordinary Fruit
What is commonly accepted as a fig’s “fruit” is technically a syconium with a fleshy, hollow receptacle with a small opening at the apex partly closed by small scales. This syconium may be obovoid, turbinate, or pear-shaped, one to four inches long, and varies in color from yellowish-green to copper, bronze, or dark purple. Tiny flowers are massed on the inside wall. In the case of the common fig, the flowers are all female and need no pollination.
Fig Growing Tips
Figs require full sun all day to produce edible fruit. Fig trees will shade out anything growing beneath the canopy so nothing needs to be planted under the tree. Fig roots are abundant, traveling far beyond the tree canopy and will invade garden beds.
Fig trees are productive with or without heavy pruning. It is essential only during the initial years. Trees should be trained with a low crown for fig collection and to avoid trunk-breaking limb weight.
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. It is better to prune immediately after the main crop is harvested. With late-ripening cultivars, summer prune half the branches and prune the remainder the following summer.
Regular fertilizing of figs is usually necessary only for potted trees or when they are grown on sandy soils. Excess nitrogen encourages foliage growth at the expense of fruit production. Any fruit that is produced often ripens improperly. Fertilize a fig tree if the branches grew less than a foot the previous year. Apply a total of a half-inch to a one-inch pound of actual nitrogen, divided into three or four applications beginning in late winter or early spring and ending in July.
Fig trees are prone to attack by nematodes, but we’ve not found them a problem. Still, a heavy mulch will discourage many insects with the proper application of nematicides.
A common and widespread problem is leaf rust caused by Cerotelium fici. The disease brings about premature leaf fall and reduces fruit yields. It is most prevalent during rainy seasons. Leaf spot results from infection by Cylindrocladium scoparium or Cercospora fici. Fig mosaic is caused by a virus and is incurable. Affected trees must be destroyed.