Something about figs feels rich and decadent. The fruit has deep colors, a distinctive shape and a gentle scent. Throughout history the fig tree has become a symbol of peace and prosperity. The fig is from the genus Ficus and the mulberry family (Moraceae).1
The common fig (Ficus carica) is believed to be indigenous to an area from Turkey to Northern India. It grows from 3 feet to 39 feet high with broad deciduous leaves that are deeply lobed.2 The tree bears fruit in singles or pairs. There are four horticultural types of fig: Smyrna, Caprifig, San Pedro and common.
The tree has a shallow but spreading root system that can penetrate up to 20 feet in permeable soil. The spreading branches and large leaves offer ample shade. Figs have been used to sweeten desserts and appear in popular holiday dishes.3 The fruit has multiple seeds, soft skin and may be eaten ripe or dried.4
Figs have been called nature’s candy as they have a high amount of natural fructose, but they are also a source of fiber and full of vitamins and minerals.5,6,7
The fig is one of the world’s oldest trees and may be traced back to early historical documents. It’s native to the Middle East and Mediterranean areas. The Greeks valued them so highly they had laws preventing their export from the country.8
Remnants of figs have been found in Neolithic sites traced to 5000 B.C..9 The fig was a principal food in the Greek culture, and the Spartans used it in their public tables.
Pliny the Elder wrote about the many varieties and in Latin mythology the fig was held sacred and employed in religious ceremonies.10 In Mediterranean countries, the fig was used so frequently it was called “the poor man’s food.”11
Figs were introduced in England in 1525 and first planted in Mexico in 1560. They were introduced to the U.S. in 1769 during the establishment of the San Diego Mission. Although the Smyrna fig was brought to California in the late 1800s, commercial agriculture was not possible until wasps were introduced in 1900 to pollinate the plants.12
Currently, California produces 98% of the figs consumed in the U.S, while Turkey tops global production.13 In Venezuela, the fig is in great demand by fruit processors. An inadequate supply triggered the launch of a program in 1962 encouraging commercial planting, which had a favorable response. Fresh figs were regarded as a highly desirable luxury.14
Although they have an exotic appearance and sweet rich flavor, they are easy to grow. In colder climate zones below hardiness zone 6,15 they may be successfully grown in containers and sheltered during the winter months. In hardiness zones 6 and above, the trees may be planted directly in the ground and grown as large trees.16
Figs will appreciate a sheltered area on the south or southwest side of your house. If they’re grown in containers, you may shelter them on a covered porch or in the garage during the winter. Figs purchased from a nursery should be planted 1 or 2 inches lower than they were growing in the original pot.17
This helps protect their shallow root system and reduces the risk of harming the plant. Fig trees are also easily propagated by taking an 8- to 10-inch wood cutting in the early spring. Place this in a pot of good soil several inches below the surface, with one or two buds above the dirt line.18
Keep the soil moist but well-drained. The tree will root in the pot and should remain in the container for at least one season before transplanting into the ground. Fig trees are dormant in the springtime, which is when they should be transplanted into the ground.
The trees are fairly drought tolerant, but you’ll want to water them if the ground gets too dry. Most of the time, the trees do not require fertilization,19 but a side dressing of well-balanced organic fertilizer or compost in the spring may help jump-start leaf development. However, too much fertilizer encourages more leaves and less fruit.20
When grown in the ground, you may wish to train it against the wall or fence. This makes it easier to harvest the fruit and when grown against the home, will protect the branches from the elements. If grown in a container, the plant should not be pruned during the first year.
During the second year, cut each branch by about half to keep the plant manageable in the pot. Ensure any cuts made are above a node in order to encourage the plant’s lateral growth and greater fruit production.21 You may also want to remove an ill-placed branch, and any dead wood.
Fig plants are naturally healthy but there are a few insects and pests that may threaten the health of your plant. The first is the root-knot nematode, more commonly found in parts of the southern U.S.22
The larvae of these pests infect the plant roots and reduce their ability to absorb nutrients from the soil. While an infected plant may be pruned to balance the weak system, it will eventually die as there is no treatment.
Rust is a fungus, showing up on the underside of leaves and is usually not fatal.23 There are more than 5,000 known species of rust. The fungal disease favors four to eight hours of low-intensity light, warm temperatures and moisture.
By planting in full sun and allowing the leaves to dry, you’ll go a long way toward reducing the potential your plant will get infected. Pick off and destroy any infected leaves falling from the plant and never use them in compost.24
The biggest challenge to a successful harvest will be picking the fruit before the squirrels and the birds get to them. Some gardeners find covering smaller trees with netting may dissuade wildlife.25 While this might be practical with container plants and smaller trees, it is impractical with large trees. You’ll have the most success being diligent watching for ripe fruit and harvesting immediately.
Under the right conditions, some species produce two crops in one year.26 The first ripens in late May or early June and the second is ready in late September to early November. The first crop is often a smaller harvest and the second season of fruit has thicker skins but a greater concentration of sweetness.27
The fruit will be ready to harvest when the narrow area where the fruit connects to the plant begins to shrivel and the fruit begins to droop.28 The fruit will be soft to the touch and the skin may begin to split. Most varieties of fig will darken just before it’s time to harvest.29
If you pick the fruit and find a milky liquid substance draining from the stem, the fruit has not quite ripened. Wait a couple of days before trying to harvest again. Be aware, this milky substance may irritate your skin, so it is helpful to wear gloves while harvesting.30
Once off the plant, figs do not continue to ripen. They also have a short shelf life and will last in the refrigerator for only two to three days. Many find drying figs helps extend their life and makes them tasty. Before drying, the figs should be washed thoroughly and dried with a towel.
You may cut them in half or leave them whole on a wire rack across a baking sheet in a 140 degrees Fahrenheit oven for eight to 24 hours. You know they’re done when the outside becomes leathery and you don’t see any juices on the inside.31 However, they should still be slightly pliable. Dried fruit will last in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container for 18 to 24 months.
There are over 700 varieties of named fig trees, but some are synonyms. Those in the Caprifigs, Smyrna and San Pedro types are not usually grown by home gardeners as they have complex pollination requirements to bear fruit.
However, the common fig (Ficus carica) is parthenocarpic, meaning it bears fruit without fertilization. Fig varieties requiring pollination have an opening to allow pollinating wasps to enter the flowers. Since common figs don’t have an opening, they are also less susceptible to insect and water damage. Some of the common figs performing well at home include:
• Celeste — This is a small to medium-sized fig growing on a large tree.32 The fruit ripens earlier than most and is more commonly used as a dessert fig as it is sweeter. The pulp of the fruit is white pink and the fruit is almost seedless. While it produces a heavy crop, it happens over a short period of time,33 and it will only produce one crop per season.34
• Alma — This variety was developed by the Agricultural Experiment Service of Texas A&M University.35 It’s a cross between two Caprifigs and was introduced in 1975. The fruit has excellent flavor and ripens late in the season.
It is highly productive and starts bearing fruit early but is less cold-hardy than some. It does well in Texas coastal areas, and while most figs do not require pruning, this variety requires some to produce a good crop.
• Brown turkey — This tree produces a large crop of figs over a long season. The fruit is smaller and not quite as rich as Celeste, but it often produces a second crop.36 The fruit has few seeds and the main crop begins in mid-July while the earlier crop is smaller. It’s adapted to warmer climates and is often found on the islands of Hawaii.37
• Purple Genca — This tree is also known as Black Genoa or Black Spanish and produces large deep purple colored fruit with red flesh. The fruit is oblong, broader at the apex and narrower at the base, with a juicy, sweet, rich flavor.38
While dried figs are nearly always available, the unique taste and texture of fresh figs is an experience you won’t soon forget. One medium sized fig is approximately 37 calories and provides 1.5 grams of fiber, in addition to vitamin B6, copper, pantothenic acid and folate.39
Figs are a good source of potassium, which your body uses to control blood pressure and balance the sodium potassium ratio. As you might expect, the nutritional value increases by weight as the fruit is dried. For instance, 100 grams provide 35 mg of calcium when fresh40 but 162 mg of calcium when dry.41
Since the food is high in fiber, it may act as a natural laxative.42 High fiber foods provide a feeling of fullness and the fiber in figs acts as a natural prebiotic to support pre-existing beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Fig leaves may be as important nutritionally as the fruit itself as they have unique health benefits, including an ability to regulate blood sugar. In one study,43 patients given a decoction of fig leaves for one month were able to lower their average insulin dose by 12%.
An animal study evaluating hypertriglyceridemia in rats used an administration of fig leaf decoction. While total cholesterol levels were unaffected, the fig decoction had a clear positive effect on lipid molecule breakdown.44
Another animal study45 evaluated the effects of figs, dates and pomegranates on neuroinflammation. They found daily administration of a supplement containing these three fruits decreased inflammatory cytokines and delayed formation of senile plaques. The researchers concluded the fruit mediated the reduction of cytokines and may be one mechanism that can help protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Figs are tasty and versatile. Use them within two to three days after picking from the tree or move on to drying them in the oven or dehydrator. The Kitchn46 offers several ways enjoying your figs, including:
Cooked with oatmeal
Roasted with honey
Chopped into a salad
Made into fig chutney
Sliced into a spoonful of creme fraiche
Added to muffins, scones and cookies
Stuffed with cheese and baked, goat and mascarpone
Added to a roast to add a sweet note to the savory sauce