My husband and I just bought our first home, and as you might have guessed, I’m extremely anxious to begin planning and planting my very own garden. There are many things to do before we’re ready to start putting plants in the ground, but I’ve already decided what I’d like to plant first; definitely a fig tree.
I’m crazy for figs. I love the shape of the trees, the coarse texture of their large, deeply-lobed leaves, and their smooth, white trunks. The fruit, however, is my absolute favorite thing about a fig tree. I like them best when eaten fresh, but figs are also delicious when dried, canned, or made into jams, jellies or preserves. It’s a good thing that there are so many delectable things we can do with the fruit, because some varieties can produce up to 3 crops per year (though more commonly 2 crops per year in Tucson), and fresh figs are only good for a few days if kept refrigerated after harvesting.
Fruit that develops in spring on the previous year’s wood is called a breba crop, while the fruit that develops on new wood in summer (and sometimes fall) is referred to as the main crop. Some fig varieties yield a breba crop and a main crop, while other varieties produce only one crop per year. There are experts who claim that the main crop is sweeter than the breba (possibly because colder spring weather can sometimes inhibit the development of sugars within the fruit), but the truth is that everyone’s taste buds are different, and each harvest from a single tree can vary in taste as the tree ages and experiences a range of growing conditions from one season to the next.
Figs must be picked when fully ripe; they won’t continue to ripen once they’re removed from the tree. Harvesting even one day too early can have an impact on its sweetness. Many fig varieties will change skin color dramatically when they’re ripe, while others change only slightly. The short stem that connects the fruit to the tree will be bendable rather than rigid, and the fig will appear to droop towards the ground when it’s ready for harvesting. Ripe fruit should detach from the tree easily when gently lifted upward from its drooping position. Leave the short stem attached to the fruit when you harvest, and wear protective gloves if your skin is sensitive to the tree’s milky sap. You can remove the stem just before eating the fruit, but leaving it attached at harvest time will help the fruit keep just a little bit longer.
Birds like figs almost as much as I do, and they won’t wait until the fruit is perfectly ripe to dig in. If you want to keep the early birds from getting to the fruit before you do, cover your tree’s canopy with netting well before the figs begins to ripen. Make sure that the netting is secured around the entire canopy to keep the birds at bay.
Fresh figs are a great source of potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin B6, and a medium-sized fruit contains only about 35-40 calories.
Have you ever wondered how a fig tree produces tasty fruit without flowering first? Many people are surprised to learn that figs actually do flower! Figs are a unique type of fruit called a syconium, which is a swollen structure on the stem, lined on the inside with up to 7,000 tiny flowers. These hidden flowers are pollinated by teeny wasps that enter the syconium through a small opening at the bottom of the fruit, called the eye. Pollinated flowers produce the delightfully crunchy seeds that we’re used to encountering in our Fig Newtons. Not all flowers produce seeds, however, and some varieties produce fewer seeds than others.
To learn more about the different kinds of edible figs that we grow and sell at Civano Nursery, head over to our catalog, type (or copy and paste) “Ficus carica” into the keyword search, and hit the “go” button. You can also watch this short but informative video about figs by our horticulturist, Eric.