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Fresh figs? Yum!
Figs are believed to be the very first human attempt at agriculture, even before barley, wheat, and legumes, over 11,000 years ago. In Aristotle’s day, farmers and scientists had some interesting ideas about wild fig trees and farmed fig trees: it was believed that tiny wasps flew from the wild (fruitless caprifig) trees to the farmed female (fruited) trees to help them hang on to the fruit! If that weren’t interesting enough, did you know that figs are not actually fruit at all? Read on!
These resilient trees grow very well in San Jose, California, thriving in our hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Originally from the Middle East and western Asia, figs are now found all around the world (except Antarctica, of course!) and with good reason. Forget the bagged, dried version of this healthful snack. Plucking a freshly ripened fig from the tree and taking a bite is heavenly. If you decide you have too many figs to eat fresh, you can always dry your own!
How figs grow
Figs (Ficus carica L.) are deciduous trees or shrubs that can reach over 30 feet in height. They tend to send out multiple trunks that create a tree that is wider than it is tall. Fig wood tends to be weak, so pruning may be needed to keep the tree structurally sound, but not necessarily. Their wide, fragrant leaves provide nice shade, but you will want to avoid the sap as it contains a form of latex that can irritate your skin. Fig trees prefer sunny, well drained locations and they are quite drought tolerant. Figs can also grow well in poor, rocky soil.
Figs reproduce several different ways. Naturally, birds and mammals that eat the fruit end up spreading seeds. Fig trees also tend to send out aggressive roots, stolons, and suckers that can be used to create new plants. You can also bend a low-growing branch down to the ground, or a container, and hold it down with a rock or some wire. After roots emerge, the new growth can be separated from the parent plant. Most fig trees are purchased as bare root trees.
Botanically, fig trees are gynodioecious, which means they have hermaphrodite flowers and female flowers on separate plants. Unless you buy a self-pollinating variety, you will need more than one tree. My self-pollinating fig produces more and more fruit every year. Fig pollination is usually completed by tiny specialized wasps called Blastophaga psenes. (Aristotle was partly correct!) Fig flowers are hidden clusters found inside a hollow structure called the syconium. The fruit, which is not technically a fruit, is actually a scion, or infructescence. An infructescence is a fruit head made up of the ovaries from a flower cluster, often called a ‘false fruit’ or a ‘multiple fruit’, depending on the presentation. Within each fig “fruit” are several one-seeded fruits called druplets. Pineapple, wheat, and corn are other examples of infructescence.
How to grow figs
Fig trees can be grown in large containers, but you will want to take advantage of their deep roots. Planting fig trees in the ground practically eliminates the need for irrigation. Like grapes, fig trees have deep roots that allow them to get most of the water they need from the soil’s saturation (or phreatic) zone, so irrigation is rarely needed once plants are established. UC Backyard Orchard provides an excellent list of fig cultivars here.
Fig pests & diseases
Thrips, ants, green fruit beetles, dried fruit beetles, gophers, and birds are the only serious pests. Ants can be thwarted with a sticky barrier around the trunk. I have always found that netting is invaluable for protecting my fig crop. Eriophyid mites may not cause significant damage but they can carry fig mosaic. Sunburn protection is a good idea. Simply paint a 50:50 mix of water and white latex (not enamel) paint on exposed surfaces.
Some fig varieties produce two crops a year. The first, or ‘breba’ crop, occurs in mid-summer and the second, main crop ripens in late summer or fall. Be sure to allow figs to ripen on the tree. They will not continue to ripen once picked.
Add figs to your foodscape for decades of delicious fiber and welcome summer shade!
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