Figs are one of the oldest cultivated fruit crops. Some indications are that they were first cultivated about 11,000 years ago. They have been with mankind through all of our civilized history. The Bible speaks of figs numerous times.
Figs are believed to have originated in south-central Asia and spread to the Mediterranean basin to the Greeks and Romans. From there they spread to Spain. Of course, when the Spanish came to Texas the padres brought fig plants to their missions. The Spanish fig that was brought to California and Texas was a variety that was later called Mission. It is still a significant variety today.
The common fig is a member of the Ficus genus from the Moraceae family (which includes mulberries). Ficus is a rather large genus containing more than 2,000 tropical and semi-tropical plants. The only Ficus that are cultivated for their fruit are the Ficus carica (the common fig) and Ficus sycomorus (the sycamore fig of Egypt). There are also a few hybrids with other members of the Ficus genus.
The fruit we all call the fig is not a fruit in the true sense of the word. Figs are an enlarged, fleshy and hollow stem bearing closely massed tiny flowers on their inner wall. When you eat a fig you are eating the container that holds the true fruit. The “seed” inside the fig are not seed at all but fruit that failed to develop.
There are two basic kinds of figs — caprifigs and edible figs. Caprifigs are male figs which produce pollen and are not good to eat. There are three important classes of edible figs: 1. caducous — Smyrna figs: Need to be pollinated to mature fruit. Without pollination the fruit will drop before it matures. Smyrna figs must be grown in the presence of Caprifigs and pollinating insects to bear fruit. 2. intermediate — San Pedro figs: Do not need to be pollinated to set a breba (first) crop but do need pollination to set the main crop. 3. persistent — common figs: Do not need to be pollinated to bear fruit. This is what is referred to as the common garden fig and the subject of this article.
Figs have been grown by Texans since the early history of our state. When settlers came to Texas they brought figs with them or got “starts” from the missions. Figs grow extremely well in our coastal areas and can be grown anywhere in Texas with proper care.
In the North, Far West and the Panhandle, protection from cold winter winds is needed. Irrigation is needed in the drier parts of our state. Even though figs can stand very dry conditions, they will not fruit unless they receive sufficient moisture.
There are more than 700 varieties of common garden figs. Of this large number only a few are varieties that can be grown and fruited successfully with good fruit quality in Texas. Here are the most favored varieties grown in Texas.
‘Brown Turkey’ An old time favorite, ‘Brown Turkey’ is a medium-small fig with a violet-brown skin and reddish-amber colored pulp. The fruit are tear-drop shaped. The pulp has a very sweet but not too rich taste, not quite as rich as ‘Celeste.’ It has a small, nearly closed eye which is reddish in color from the very early stages of fruit development. It fruits on new wood (growth); so if you have an exceptionally cold winter and the plant gets killed to the ground, the plant will probably grow back and may even produce a crop the same year. It produces two crops a year with good cultural conditions, one in late May-June and another in late September to early November. It has a broad-spreading tree shape. The leaves have five lobes as opposed to the three-lobed leaves of many figs.
‘Texas Everbearing’ With this variety there are a lot of conflicting opinions. Some say it is the same variety as ‘Brown Turkey’ and some say that it is similar but not the same variety. My experience is that it is a different variety, although somewhat similar. There are three differences – the flesh is more amber in color as opposed to the reddish-amber of the ‘Brown Turkey’ pulp, the leaves have three lobes as opposed to the five lobes of ‘Brown Turkey’ and the shape of the tree is more upright instead of broad-spreading. ‘Texas Everbearing’ is a slightly better fig in my opinion than ‘Brown Turkey’ for many areas of Texas. It has the same cold hardiness and the fruit are nearly the same in taste. It bears well and with good growing conditions will bear two crops a year. The early crop (breba crop) ripens in late May to late June and the second crop in late September to early November.
‘Black Mission’ Best grown in the southern part of our state, ‘Black Mission’ is a large fig with purple-black skin and light strawberry pulp. It has a heavy first crop (breba) in early summer and average main crop which ripens in late fall. A very vigorous growing fig but not very cold hardy. It has some problems with leaf mosaic but it does not seem to affect the fruit. It is one of the better figs for areas of Texas with mild winters. Its large size and rich taste make it a premium fig. Good either fresh or dried.
‘Alma’ A variety developed by the Agricultural Experiment Service of Texas A&M University. A cross of the variety ‘Allison’ and a male ‘Hamma’ caprifig, it was introduced in 1975. It is a medium-small fig that has golden-brown skin with a pear shape and amber pulp. The pulp is very rich and sweet. The eye of ‘Alma’ is naturally sealed with a drop of resin that prevents problems with insects and fruit spoilage. A moderately vigorous variety, it is very productive and comes into bearing early in its life. ‘Alma’ has one small problem. It is little less cold hardy than some varieties, especially when young. Once established, the trees are more cold hardy. It grows well in Texas coastal areas as well as South-Central and South Texas. This variety can become a little weedy so it needs some pruning at times to produce good crops.
‘Celeste’ A medium-small fig with a purple-brown skin and very light pink pulp. It has a small closed eye which inhibits the entry of insects and helps prevent fruit spoilage. The eye remains green until the fig is nearly ripe, unlike ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Texas Everbearing.’ It is an excellent small fig, one of the better figs for the eastern and northern parts of Texas. It does not seem to do as well in drier areas, such as West and South Texas. This is the most cold hardy of this group of figs, but when it comes to hot weather it will suffer a little unless it is kept watered. ‘Celeste’ does not have an early (breba) crop, only the main crop that usually starts ripening in late July.
‘Kadota’ The commercial variety in California. This is a variety mainly for coastal areas of South Texas. It is a high quality fig with greenish-white skin and amber pulp. The pulp is rich and sweet. This is the common canned or dried fig of commerce. It requires heat to develop its best flavor. The eye is open but it is filled with resin that prevents damage from insects and fruit spoilage. It takes two years to recover from being killed to the ground. The fruit becomes rubbery in very dry, hot areas.
‘Blue Giant’ A fig developed in Texas by private interests that has extra large figs with purple skin and amber pulp. It is good fresh or dried. The best growing area for this fig is not yet known, but it does grow well around San Antonio. It is not quite hardy enough for North-Central and North Texas and should be limited to southeast coastal areas and South Texas. This is one of the best fig selections if you live in these warm-winter areas, being such a nice, large fig.
Being a subtropical species, figs prefer a Mediterranean-like climate with hot, dry summers and mildly cool, wet winters. Many of the fig varieties are only cold hardy down to 15ø or 20øF, but there are a few varieties that will stand temperatures down to 10øF. Many of the figs in northern areas of Texas are planted near a wall or fence that helps protect them from cold winter winds.
My great aunt had several fig bushes growing alongside the “car shed” on her farm outside the small town of Star, Texas, many, many years ago. The fig “bushes” yielded quarts and quarts of figs that she canned. I can remember, as a small boy, going to her house with the expectation of fig preserves with homemade biscuits and fresh farm butter, a real treat. In those days (more than 50 years ago) they had a windmill that fed a storage tank that in turn fed into the house. The overflow from the windmill ran to the area of the figs, so they got plenty of water. The “car shed” provided protection from cold winter winds for her fig “bushes.” The point of this is that figs need plenty of water to fruit well and some winter protection in many parts of Texas.
Figs trees when fully mature are about the same height as width and they can reach 15 or 20 feet high with the same spread. So plan accordingly. Usually they will have four to six primary trunks branching off near or below ground level from the crown. These primary trunks can each be 6 inches in diameter in a large, older tree.
Soil. The best soil for figs is a well drained loam with plenty of organic matter, but they will grow in less than ideal soil. They prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 but will grow on soils with a pH of 5.5 to 8.0. Getting them established is the hardest part of growing figs. Sometimes you have to plant twice to get a bush going. So do not despair if the first attempt is not successful.
Sun. Figs need plenty of sun. If you plant them next to a wall or solid fence, make sure that they get at least 7 to 8 hours of full sun a day in the growing season.
Water. Figs and water go together, but not too much water. The main thing is to keep the soil moist, but not wet constantly. This water can come from rainfall or irrigation but just test the soil at least 2 inches below the surface for soil moisture and irrigate as necessary. Heavy rain or standing water can cause the fruit to split and spoil, and if water stands on the plants for long periods it can cause the plants to die.
Fertilizer. Compost and well-rotted mature are the very best fertilizer for fig trees, but commercial fertilizers can be used. Apply a balanced fertilizer about three times a year – spring, early summer and mid-summer. On a medium-sized tree apply 2 to 3 cups of a balanced fertilizer in a circle from about a foot from the trunks to the drip line, and then work it into the soil. Do not apply any fertilizer in the fall as it can cause the trees to put on new growth when the plant is nearing the first frost, causing damage. Caution: Do not use any fertilizer the first year after planting; let the trees get established first.
Planting. If you are growing your figs in a row, plant the trees 15 to 20 feet apart. Prune your new plants back a little when you plant them. It is better to plant them a little deeper than they were growing in the nursery, about 2 to 3 inches deeper. The best planting time for bare-root plants is in the late winter – late January and February. Potted plants can be planted any time.
Pruning. Figs should be pruned very little except for varieties like ‘Kadota’ and ‘Black Mission,’ which require some pruning. If your tree becomes weedy, prune it to shape it up. Remove any weak, dead or diseased limbs.
Pests and Insects. The major problem in Texas is root-knot nematodes, fig rust and cotton root rot. I have found that if you do not cultivate the area around your fig trees you will have less of a problem with nematodes. Mowing the area to keep it clean seems to work well. Nematodes are more of a problem on sandy soils.
Fig rust is a fungal disease that attacks the leaves. It most commonly occurs in the more humid areas of Texas. It can be controlled by a neutral copper spray in May or early June.
If you have cotton root rot, do not plant figs. Instead, plant a resistant species such as pomegranate.
Nearly all of these varieties are available through nurseries in Texas.
One source for ‘Blue Giant’ is Fanick’s Nursery in San Antonio. Womack Nursery in De Leon has the three main varieties – ‘Brown Turkey,’ ‘Texas Everbearing’ and ‘Celeste.’ Bob Wells Nursery in Lindale has all the varieties mentioned except ‘Blue Giant.’
Richard Ashton is the author of several books on fruit growing. The Incredible Pomegranate – Plant and Fruit, Jujube – The Chinese Date and his soon to be published book Sweet Cherries for Southern Orchards are available from Third Millennium Publishing at www.3mpub.com/ashton or they can be purchased through the Texas Gardener bookstore.