The common fig (Ficus carica) is a deciduous tree native to the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia. Figs are hardy in Zones 8 and higher. In my Zone 8B garden the common fig produces a dependable crop year after year. The tree is prized not only for its edible fruit, but also for its tropical appearance and dramatic spreading habit. Growing anywhere from 15 to 30 feet tall and often wider than tall, it is a handsome landscape specimen. In spring large, velvety, three- or five-lobed leaves with prominent light green veins decorate the tree. The backsides of the leaves are lighter green with prominently raised veins. The foliage, combined with smooth, silvery gray bark and lower limbs that sweep the ground provide an entirely satisfactory scene outside my window.
Figs need full sun and well-drained, organic soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Water well until plants are well established. Once established, figs are drought tolerant but appreciate an occasional deep watering during droughts or prolonged dry weather. Use an organic mulch to conserve moisture. In addition to some other benefits, organic mulch breaks down to improve soil structure and reduces root knot nematode populations which can be harmful to figs.
Make sure to plant figs in an area where its graceful spreading shape can be appreciated. Avoid planting near outdoor living spaces where dropping or rotting fruit might cause unpleasant odors or attract insects such as flies and wasps. Make sure the roots have plenty room because they spread well beyond the reach of the branches.
Figs can also be planted in large containers that are wheeled into a protected area in winter.
I cannot imagine a situation in which dropping or rotting fruit might be a problem. In my garden I have to get up very early to harvest the fruit before the squirrels and birds harvest it for me. Any that gets dropped on the ground is quickly eaten by the box turtles that live on the property. The beautiful red admiral butterfly always pays a visit when any remaining scraps can be found on the ground.
Types of Figs
Although my article is primarily about the common fig, other types are grown in different parts of the country. Three types of figs are: 1) Caducous (or Smyrna) figs, such as ‘Calimyrna’, ‘Marabout’, and ‘Zidi’ which require pollination by the fig wasp with pollen from caprifigs (a wild, inedible fig) to develop fruit; 2) Intermediate (or San Pedro) figs, including ‘Lampeira’, ‘King’, and ‘San Pedro’, which do not need pollination to set the first crop but require pollination in some regions for the main crop; 3) Persistent (common) figs, with examples such as ‘Adriatic’, ‘Black Mission’, ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Brunswick’, and ‘Celeste’ that do not need pollination for fruit to develop. Of these, the persistent or common figs are most commonly grown in the Southeastern United States, and ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ are most popular cultivars of the common fig.
According to the University of Florida, figs do not require pruning unless it is to remove freeze-damaged or diseased wood or crossing branches. Fruit is borne on the previous season’s growth, so pruning should be done immediately after the fruit is produced if it is to be done. Never prune in winter since this could eliminate the entire crop for the next year. Conflicting information about pruning figs was found on the internet, so my advice is to check with an extension agent regarding the best pruning practices for your area.
Figs are easy to propagate using almost any technique. They can be started from seeds, but it takes a long time from seed to plant. Cuttings are easier and take much less time. Cuttings are best taken in spring or winter, and root suckers can be transplanted at almost any time of year.
In spring before new growth starts, take tip cuttings 6 to 10 inches long. Take the cutting and leave a node, (place where leaves and fruit will emerge) near the bottom as roots will emerge from the node. Stick the cuttings in pots of moist soil or sand and make sure they are kept shaded until leaves start growing. Gradually move them into the sun. These container-rooted plants can be set out the following fall.
To propagate in winter, take tip cuttings after the leaves have fallen. Stick the cuttings in dampened perlite or sand in a container such as an old ice chest with a tight-fitting lid. Put the ice chest in a dark, protected place. Come spring, the container will be filled with rooted cuttings ready to pot up for friends or for yourself. Shoots can also be laid in prepared trenches with just the tip showing above ground. By spring they will be rooted.
Layering provides another easy means of propagation. Air layering works well on the current season’s growth in mid summer. Ground layering is easily accomplished by selecting a low-hanging branch, scratching the bark so that the inner bark is exposed, and pinning the scratched area to the ground. These layered branches root within a few weeks and can be cut apart from the mother plant and planted in containers or in the ground.
Pick fruit as soon as it is ripe. Ripe figs will be completely colored and starting to bend over at the neck. They will be slightly soft, and should be picked with the stem on. Place picked figs in the refrigerator where they will last for two or three days. Process as soon as possible. Wear gloves while picking if the milky sap is irritating and long sleeves if the pubescent (hairy) leaves cause any skin reactions.
My favorite way to eat figs is straight off the tree. When fruit first ripens, I pull it off the tree, remove the stem, and pop it right into my mouth. I also enjoy them cooked and served along with hot, buttered biscuits. I don’t really have a recipe for cooking figs, but I pick as many as I want to cook, wash them thoroughly, and remove the stems. Then I place them in a pot and put in a significant amount of sugar. That I don’t measure, either. I just pour sugar over the figs until it fills all the spaces and mounds slightly above the figs. Then I turn the stove eye on low until the sugar melts, after which time I turn up the heat and cook them until they are tender. That’s pretty unscientific and inexact, but it works for me.