As you may have guessed, this article celebrates the noble fig. Thanks to my Italian roots, I was introduced to figs at an early age. My grandparents had a beautiful fig tree in their sunny back yard in southern California. They cherished that green gem, which never failed to produce a plentiful supply of delicious, mouth-watering fruit. As part of his daily routine, my grandpa loved to go outside and pick fresh figs, and I was more than happy to dig into those juicy, pear-shaped edibles whenever I visited.
Truth be told, I thought figs were rather exotic, but I liked their natural sweetness, smooth skin, spongy texture, and all those tiny seeds that offered subtle crunchiness. It wasn’t until years later that I expanded my understanding of the special qualities of this highly nutritious fruit. Small but mighty, bite-sized figs pack a powerful punch of health benefits, from soluble dietary fiber, to antioxidants and phytonutrients (which fight against free radicals that can lead to cancer, diabetes, infections, and other degenerative diseases), to a wide variety of vitamins and minerals (B-complex, calcium, potassium, manganese, copper, iron, zinc, and selenium) that help keep us feeling good. If I haven’t yet convinced you to consider giving figs a fair shake, the recipes that follow this article may tempt your taste buds.
But first, here are some historical and botanical nuggets about this unique fruit. Fig trees, which date back to 5000 B.C., were among the first fruit-bearing plants that humans cultivated. In fact, fossils of figs have been found in Neolithic villages, and figs are mentioned in Biblical stories. Figs were highly valued in ancient times and are associated symbolically with peace, prosperity, and abundance. In tropical areas, fig trees are a keystone species that produce year-round food resources to help sustain life.
Figs are members of the mulberry family of plants (Moraceae). They are often referred to as “fruit without a flower.” They are an example of inverted flowers that bloom inside the skin and then turn into fruit. You may want to learn more about the fascinating story of how wasps succeed with pollination inside a fig pod. Note that not all fig trees conform to that pattern. Most “common type” fig trees, Ficus carica, mature independently with parthenocarpy*, or fruit production without pollination or fertilization. I have to admit that part of my fascination with this fruit is the unusual nature of its defining features.
Believe it or not, there are more than 600 varieties of common fig trees. When deciding which to purchase, gardeners should consider what types will thrive in their own horticultural zone. Figs don’t like cold weather, so here in the Piedmont region (zone 7a), select varieties that can withstand a moderate freeze. Your best bets are: Celeste, Brown Turkey, and Magnolia fig trees (also called Brunswick), which can tolerate temperatures down to 10°-15°F. Celeste and Brown Turkey are excellent choices if you want to eat fresh fruit, whereas Magnolia figs are best for making preserves.
When planning to grow fig trees on your land, keep in mind that they prefer well-drained, loamy soil with a pH of 6 to 7 and lots of organic matter. Once well-established, these attractive horticultural beauties are sun-lovers that can tolerate drier soil and even drought. Fig trees appreciate being planted in locations that offer protection from harsh winter winds. For example, a site near a building or wall can provide helpful insulation from extreme weather conditions. My fig tree seems to struggle during the winter, so this year I’m going to build a chicken wire cage around it and then fill that with hay or straw to protect the tree from bitter cold. Younger fig trees will also benefit from a layer of mulch (1 – 2 feet deep) all around the trunk.
Remember, “right plant, right place, right time.” If you are getting interested, the proper season to plant dormant fig trees from a nursery is between late fall and early spring. However, if you purchase container-grown fig trees, spring planting is best. Be sure to set the new tree 1 – 3 inches deeper in the ground than it was at the nursery. Fill the hole with healthy soil and give the thirsty plant a generous drink of water. Then you’ll have to be patient, because fig trees may not produce much fruit for three or four years.
Perhaps my greatest challenge has been pruning the fig tree correctly. Check out this link to see what I’ve discovered in my research. Avoid pruning a young fig tree during its first year. The next spring, choose a few strong shoots as “leaders” and remove all the others. The second year, cut back one-third of the plant’s growth, making sure that the leaders remain. The goal is to train the tree while keeping its overall height in check. Careful pruning should continue for the first five years to help the fig tree grow upward with a desirable shape. Early on, I left too many shoots on my fig tree and ended up with a bushy specimen that fails to produce abundant fruit. Lesson learned.
Conscientious gardeners know how important good sanitation practice is, although fig trees are fairly resistant to insect problems. Birds and deer share my passion for figs, but netting or fencing can deter those visitors. As fruit matures, figs are subject to fruit drop. Possible reasons for this issue are: weak trees (e.g., insufficient pruning), cold weather damage (e.g., winter kill), or too few warm days to encourage ample fruit production. But given sufficient TLC, a fig tree can yield many years of handsome foliage and delectable harvests. Go for it!
*Some species of fig trees, including many modern cultivars of common figs, will develop their syconia into fleshy fruits without pollination or fertilization, a situation known botanically as parthenocarpy. Thus, the tiny gall-wasp is not needed to form fig fruits, although no seeds are produced if pollination doesn’t occur. In some species of fig trees, if female syconia are not pollinated by gall-wasps, they simply abort and drop off the tree, according to Wayne’s Word.
As a delicious follow-up to your reading, these easy recipes prove that figs are a versatile culinary treat!
Figs with Goat Cheese (check out our Recipe of the Month for a variation)
Select ripe figs, rinse, and trim off stems
Slice each fig halfway down from the stem area, making four cuts
Gently squeeze the fig to create an opening; add a generous spoonful of goat cheese
Drizzle a small amount of honey on top and enjoy!
Preheat oven to 400°F
Wash figs and trim off stems
Cut bacon slices into thirds and wrap each piece around a fig
Secure with toothpick and place on baking pan
Cook for 15 minutes until bacon is done and savor the flavor!
Visit these links for more fig recipes:
Links to References and Resources