Figs are the oldest fruit, certainly being eaten many thousands of years ago all around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. Fresh figs are today the goal of home gardeners, who want to enjoy the unrivalled pleasure of eaten them fully-ripe, straight from the tree, still warm from the golden rays of the sun, and packed with delicious juice and flavors. Store-bought ‘fresh’ figs can’t rival that experience, and so growing a fig tree is a goal for many, even in areas where it is, to say the least, a challenge. Before rapid transport, figs were grown to be dried – a nutritious energy store that lasted for years.
Understanding Brings Success
If you want to grow a fig tree successfully, and choose the right variety to do it, then it certainly helps to know as much as you can about this exotic and unique bush – unique in flavor, appearance and certainly unique in its complex biology. So, let’s explore the secrets of this near-magical tree, and also learn some of the story of its arrival and cultivation in America.
How Long Have Fig Trees Been Grown?
The common fig tree, Ficus carica, is just one of 850 different species of fig trees, a group of trees, shrubs and vines that grow almost exclusively in the tropics. The common fig isn’t ‘common’ at all, because it is one of the few that grows in colder, temperate regions, adapted to cold winters, hot and dry summers, and drought, not jungle. It has been in cultivation so long we don’t even know where it first grew wild, although the Middle East and Persian Gulf are the most likely places. Evidence of its cultivation in the Stone Age (at a Neolithic village in Jordan called Gilgal) 12,000 years ago means it was cultivated not only long before grapes and dates, but even before cereal crop like wheat and barley.
In case you were wondering, there are over 80 other species of figs that are eaten somewhere on the planet, but just locally – only the common fig enjoys universal approval.
Figs Come in Male and Female
Although not unique in this, the first thing to know about figs is that they have separate male and female trees (like holly bushes, for example). The figs we eat are all female, and over the centuries varieties of female trees have been selected that not only have large, fleshy fruit but that also ripen that fruit alone, without pollination. Wild female figs drop to the ground without maturing if they are not pollinated. As well, many varieties produce two crops a year.
Ripening in early summer, the ‘breba’ crop is always self-pollinating, or more precisely, ‘parthenocarpic’ – the fruit simply develops without any pollen being needed at all. This crop develops from fruit that first appears in the previous fall. As an adaption to cool winters, it remains dormant until warm weather returns, when it develops into full-sized fruits – although often smaller than the main crop. Breba figs ripen early, at some time during early summer, depending on the climate and growing conditions. Although breba crops are common, only a few varieties produce anything worth eating.
From the view of a home gardener, you can only expect a breba crop from your fig first of all if it is a variety that produces a good one, and secondly if your winter is not too cold, as colder weather, especially wet and windy early spring weather, causes the immature breba figs to fall. So check and consider both these things when choosing the best fig for your own garden.
The second crop, the main crop, forms on new branches that sprout in spring, developing figs along their length. In most varieties these figs will only develop with pollination – they are called smyrna figs. However, and here it where it gets tricky, some will, like breba figs, develop through parthenocarpy, and form without pollination. The popular ‘Brown Turkey’ fig, one of the best for cold regions, is like that – it develops a crop all by itself.
The Structure of the Fig Fruit
Figs are a unique fruit, because the fig is in fact a kind of ‘outside in’ flower head. Think of a flat flower head, studded with tiny flowers. Now gather up the edges to make a bag, and bingo, you have a fig. The red or amber flesh inside the fig are the female flowers, and the hole at the bottom, called the ostiole, is where the ‘bag’ was gathered up. Botanists call the fig fruit a syconium.
Now we come to the fabulous bit, exactly how figs are pollinated. As we said, there are male trees of Ficus carica. All but one are ‘wild’, and inedible, called ‘caprifigs’. (The only male edible fig is an exceedingly rare variety called ‘Croisic’.) Pollination is carried out by a tiny wasp, and almost every species of fig has a corresponding species of wasp – so figs can only be pollinated if the ‘right’ fig wasp is living with it. The species for Ficus carica is Blastophaga psenes.
The female adult wasp crawls inside the caprifig through the ostiole, and lays eggs. When the next generation of female wasps mature they leave the caprifig and some fly to a smyrna fig, crawling inside, planning to lay their eggs. They carry with them pollen from the caprifig, so they pollinate the female fig successfully. The female wasp dies, but don’t worry, the fruit secretes enzymes that digest it, so it disappears, and it doesn’t carry any diseases either – perfectly safe to eat. It also never gets to lay any eggs.
You can tell if a fig has been pollinated by the crunch of the seeds inside. Around the Mediterranean growers collect caprifigs just before the females emerge, and hang them in bunches in the fig orchards, to ensure pollination.
Fig Trees Come to America
Figs arrived in America in two main ways. Luckily branches of figs can be wrapped in bundles and kept for long periods, and then rooted when you arrive where you are going. So it was pretty easy for early Spanish missionaries to carry branches to the Spanish territories that later became California. Later, in the 19th century, migrants from Italy brought branches, and grew them, often in northern cities where the winters were too cold. They invented the practice of overwintering figs by burying them, something gardeners in northern areas still do today. Usually these people had no clear idea of the varieties they were carrying – they just know they were their best local figs. So many varieties we grow today in America have uncertain origins and ‘made-up’ names, and experts debate which European varieties they might be equivalent to.
The Californian Fig Industry
Parts of California have climates very like the best fig-growing regions in Europe, so it was natural that an industry grew up, first around Fresno. The best variety in the world at the time was the Smyrna fig, from the town of the same name, in Turkey (called Izmir today). So in 1880, 144,000 cuttings of the Smyrna fig were brought over from Turkey to Fresno. The trees flourished, but the fruit dropped when still small. The growers thought the Turks had cheated them. . . . but they were wrong. The problem was the absence of the fig wasp. At first the growers resorted to artificial pollination. Break open the caprifigs, remove the pollen on a toothpick and insert it into the ostiole and the result is a ripe fig. Not the easiest job to do in an orchard! At the time many experts thought the tales of wasps were a superstition, but in 1899 W.T. Swingle, from the US Department of Agriculture, succeeded in establishing the wasps in the orchard of George Roeding by bringing in ‘infested’ caprifigs from Turkey. The California fig industry, America’s largest, was born.
Where Can I Grow Smyrna Figs?
Although the wasps have established themselves in parts of California, they don’t seem to reliably be anywhere else in the country. So if you try and grow a fig somewhere else, one that needs pollination, like the Californian ‘Calimyrna’ for example, you are unlikely to harvest a main crop. Stick to self-fertile varieties, which many today are, if you want a good main crop fig tree for your garden. Even in California, you need a male tree as well for the wasps to complete their lifecycle.
When choosing a variety, juggle your climate and your location to choose the ‘right’ varieties for your garden – it’s the secret to success with the fabulous fig.