Figs are best eaten fresh under the tree

Image by jhfl from PixabayImage by jhfl from PixabayWorldwide, the common fig remains one of the most popular fruits, prized for its soft sweet flesh which goes in so many delectable dishes, and everybody loves them – fresh, dried, stewed, preserved, roasted, paired with cheese, or just toast with fig jam - figs are simply irresistible! And one of the best ways to enjoy them is to eat them fresh from the tree, so if you really love figs, why not try your hand at growing your own!

The deciduous fig tree flourishes in hot, dry climates, and needs full sun to produce its abundance of sweet fruits. If cared for correctly it can live as long as 100 years, and under optimal conditions can grow 10 meters or more, with its large attractive leaves adorning twisty branches which can spread wider than the trees height. However, many will flourish in large containers, and in the garden they are typically kept no taller than about 2 to 3m with an equal spread, mainly to ensure easier harvesting.

It is interesting to note that Ficus species, unlike most flowering plants which display their blooms for all to see, belong to an eccentric family of fruit trees which hide their flowers away inside their hollow figs. For this reason, botanically, the fig isn't actually a fruit but a syconium - a portion of the stem that expanded into a sac containing flowers that grow internally.

Theophrastus, a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos, and the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school, noticed tiny insects entering or emerging from figs, and the story of these little insects would turn out to be one of the most astounding in all of biology, but more than 2000 years would pass before scientists realised that each Ficus species has its own wasp pollinator, and some even have two.

Scientists believe that this remarkable relationship began more than 80 million years ago and has shaped the human and the animal kingdom ever since, because to ensure that their pollinator wasps survive, Ficus species must produce figs all year-round. This is wonderful for all fruit-eating animals, and collectively, all the Ficus species around the world sustain more species of wildlife than any other kind of fruit. More than 1200 species eat figs, including one-tenth of all the birds in the world, nearly all known fruit-bats, and dozens of species of primates, all of which disperse the seeds as they do so. For this reason, ecologists call figs "keystone resources" because, just like the keystone of a bridge which holds it up, if figs disappear, so much else could come crashing down.

The history of our ancient fig trees is fascinating and especially that of the common edible fig. Did you know that edible figs are one of the first plants cultivated by humans, along with olive trees and grapevines, and preceding even the domestication of wheat, barley, rye, and legumes? Nine subfossil figs of a sterile type, dating to about 9400 to 9200 BC, were found in the early Neolithic village called  “Gilgal I”, located in the Jordan Valley, 13 km north of Jericho, and it appears that this sterile but desirable type was intentionally selected and planted about one thousand years before wheat and rye. And, the remains of ancient fig trees were found during excavations of Neolithic sites dating from 5000 BC.

The ancient Egyptians came upon a species called Ficus sycomorus, which they brought to Egypt to cultivate, and somehow, despite the fact that the pollinator wasp of this species was either locally extinct or had never arrived with the plants, and therefore the trees should never have borne fruit, whether through a stroke of luck or sheer genius, farmers worked out that they could trick the tree into ripening its figs by gashing them with a blade. And so figs flourished in ancient Egypt, becoming a mainstay of Egyptian agriculture and culture, and it is said that farmers even trained monkeys to climb the trees and harvest the fruit. The Pharaohs took dried figs to their graves in order to sustain their souls on their journey into the afterlife, believing that the mother goddess Hathor would emerge from a mythic fig tree to welcome them into heaven.

To the north and east, the Egyptian fig's sweeter cousin, Ficus carica, became an important food to several other ancient civilisations. The Sumerian King Urukagina wrote about them nearly 5000 years ago, King Nebuchadnezzar II planted them in the hanging gardens of Babylon, King Solomon of Israel praised them in song, and the ancient Greeks and Romans said figs were heaven-sent.

Sumerian stone tablets dating back to 2500 BC also record the culinary uses of figs, and they were just as widespread in ancient Greece, with their cultivation being described by both Aristotle and Theophrastus. Figs were also a common food source for the Romans, and Cato the Elder, in his c. 160 BC “De Agri Cultura” lists several strains of figs grown at the time. Ancient Olympians earned figs for their athletic prowess, and Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, natural philosopher, and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian, extolled the fruit's restorative powers. Both the Greeks and the Romans loved figs so much they took them wherever they went, and so contributed to their spread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean region.

Figs have symbolism in many of the world’s religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism, representing fertility, peace, and prosperity. The prophet Mohammed reportedly identified the fig as the one fruit he would most wish to see in paradise, and the fig tree also appears repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with some scholars believing that the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was actually a fig rather than an apple.

Basically, edible figs were cultivated in vast regions from Afghanistan to Portugal, and even in Pithoragarh, in the Kumaon hills of India. From the 15th century onwards, they were grown in Northern Europe and in the 16th century, Cardinal Reginald Pole introduced fig trees to Lambeth Palace in London.

Figs were introduced to California by Franciscan missionaries, starting with the founding of ‘Mission San Diego’ in 1769. The dark-skinned, pink-fleshed Mission fig was the only kind grown here until the 1850’s, when settlers brought other varieties from the East Coast and Europe. However, worldwide, the Mission variety still remains immensely popular today.

The major commercial producers of the fig are; Spain, Italy, Turkey, Middle Eastern Countries, Iran, Greece, Portugal, USA, North Africa and South Africa. Fig farming in South Africa started around the local production of dried figs and fig jam, but South Africa is also now an exporter of fresh figs.

Nowadays, fig farming is increasingly practised under irrigation with different agricultural techniques to increase yield, quality and shelf life. Fig trees are also successfully grown in open orchards, under shade netting, in greenhouses, and in hydroponic systems. In fact, a study in Japan has found that fig trees grown in a hydroponic system, together with a special pruning procedure can produce two main crops a year. Mexican studies have also shown that intensive production of fig trees in greenhouse and hydroponic systems produced up to 20 times more fruit than in open-land cultivation.

The commercially cultivated fig tree is usually a female parthenocarpic variety of the ancient common fig (Ficus carica) and does not need pollination to produce fruit. In botany parthenocarpic is the natural or artificially induced production of fruit without fertilisation of ovules, which makes the fruit seedless. Luckily there are several excellent cultivars available for gardeners in South Africa, both tried and tested old varieties and newer ones, so you are sure to find suitable varieties for your garden.

In South Africa figs bear their main crop in late summer and autumn, and this crop is produced on the current season’s growth. Depending on the variety grown, harvesting can begin in November/December and can last until April/May. Many varieties also provide the grower with a bonus crop about a month or so earlier than the main crop. This early crop is produced on the previous year’s wood, and in South Africa we call this early crop "voorvye", and it is also called "breba" from the Spanish word "breva".

Breba crops vary from one variety to the other, with some varieties producing a heavy crop of brebas, while others produce only a few. Varieties which produce heavy breba crops are sought after, with connoisseurs debating whether they are actually sweeter than the main crop. The shape and colour of the breba crop is also not always identical to the main crop, and a yellow skinned fig variety can produce red-skinned brebas or a round fig variety could produce long brebas and those with medium size figs as their main crop can produce very large breba figs.

Types of Figs:

Figs varieties range from very small and almost round, to large and pear-shaped, to almost oblong, as in the case of the ‘banana fig’. Fig colours can range from almost black with dark-red flesh, to yellowish green with pale pink to almost white flesh.

The names of fig cultivars can be confusing due to varieties that are known under different names in different countries. There may be as many as 700 varietal names but many are synonymous. Below are a few of the most popular garden varieties in South Africa.

‘Adam’ is a unique strain which remains one of the most popular fig varieties, having been grown in backyards throughout South Africa since 1931. It tolerates light to moderate frosts and is a vigorous upright grower with huge leaves, growing +-5m x 5m if left unpruned. It is a two crop (breba) variety but the breba crop is small, however, the main crop is abundant, producing large, fat, pear-shaped fruits with green skin which develops light purple bands when fully ripe. The flesh is a unique dark red to purple with a sophisticated taste which is not overly sweet, with crunchy seeds. The figs ripen from late March and into April.

‘Black Genoa’ is a popular two crop (breba) variety, and the main crop is abundan, with very large, fat, pear-shaped figs with a purplish-brown skin, and sweet strawberry pink flesh. It ripens from January to February, and is an excellent variety for growing in pots.  In the soil it grows +-3m x 3m, and is tolerant of moderate frost once established. It grows well in the summer rainfall regions, but splitting might become troublesome in overly wet or humid regions.

‘White Genoa’ is a popular two crop (breba) variety with an abundance of early figs. It is a robust grower, +-3m x 3m, and tolerates moderate frost once established. The main crop is abundant, with large, oval-shaped figs with a green skin which turns slightly yellow when ripe. The light pink to amber flesh ripens in February.  This cultivar is good for most regions of South Africa, but is especially good in cool coastal areas. It has also proved to be successful in the Pietermaritzburg climate and surrounding Midland’s areas. 

‘Cape White’ or ‘Kaapse Wit’ is a an old South African favourite which ripens from January to February, and produces small to medium sized, round to slightly flattened, green skinned figs. The skin is ribbed and turns very slightly yellow when fully ripe. This is one of the best tasting white varieties, with yellow to light pink flesh which is very sweet. It is a low growing, compact variety, +- 3m tall, with an equal spread, if left unpruned. It grows well in hot regions, but is also excellent for cooler coastal areas, and regions with cool summers, and once established shows good tolerance against heavy frosts inland. This fig does well in small gardens and in pots, and is also one of the most popular varieties for supplying early ‘breba’ figs ‘voorvye’ for green fig preserve.

‘Cape Brown’ ‘Kaapse Bruin’ is another one of South Africa’s oldest cultivated figs, common since the early 1900’s. It is a fantastic dwarf variety which remains compact, +-2m x 2m, with relatively small leaves. Because it is slow growing, compact, and a heavy bearer, it is one of the best varieties for small gardens and for growing in pots.  It bears a small crop of early (breba) figs, and the main crop has medium-sized egg-shaped figs with light brown, ribbed skin when ripe. The dark pink flesh is sweet and rich and the main crop ripens from January. Once established it tolerates moderate to heavy frosts and has good resistance against splitting. It is also excellent for areas with cool summers, and cool coastal regions.

‘Black Mission’ is a highly recommended cultivar which bears a small crop of early (breba) figs, but  the main crop, which ripens in late January is excellent, producing  fat, medium to large pear-shaped figs with dark purple to black skins. The flesh is strawberry coloured, excellent tasting and sweet, and sometimes they even ooze a bit of syrup, which you should take as a very good sign when picking or buying them. The trees only tolerate light to moderate frosts, and grow vigorously to 5m x 5m if left unpruned. The fruit has a very good resistance to splitting, making them good for the summer rainfall regions.

Visit your local garden centre to find the best varieties for your climate.

Fig Smoothie. Image by Plants World from PixabayFig Smoothie. Image by Plants World from PixabayHealth Benefits:

The healing power of fig species is not limited to their fruit. Medicines developed over millennia by people throughout the tropics make use of their bark, leaves, roots and latex. In some old Mediterranean folk practices, the milky sap of figs was used to soften calluses and remove warts, and even chimpanzees appear to turn to these trees for their curative powers. Researchers working in Uganda observed that occasionally the chimpanzees would eat the bark and leaves of wild fig trees, and wondered if they were self-medicating. And this is highly likely because tests show that compounds in the fig leaves and the bark are indeed effective against bacteria, parasites and tumours.

With an age-old reputation as a sustaining and nourishing food, figs, be they fresh or dried,  are friendly to the digestive system because they contain an enzyme called “ficin” that helps the digestive process by soothing the gut. They are also mildly laxative, and weight for weight, a fig contains more fibre than most other fruits or vegetables, so they're great for your bowels and your cholesterol levels.

Dried figs are a rich source of fibre, iron, potassium and calcium, making them a useful food for people with high blood pressure. They're also high in polyphenol antioxidants, which can make them a valuable food for cancer prevention. The instant energy they provide and their ability to prevent cramps make them ideal for athletes, too.

Duck breast with figs. Image by Mogens Petersen from PixabayDuck breast with figs. Image by Mogens Petersen from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Among the oldest fruits consumed by humans, figs tell a complex and symbolic story in culinary history. Figs sweetened all types of desserts before the widespread use of sugar, and still appear as the main ingredient in popular holiday dishes. There is almost no limit to the use of figs; they can be eaten fresh, canned, dried, or made into an assortment of preserves. Fresh figs, ground into a paste and incorporated into cakes, cookies and other baked goods add moisture and sweetness. Foodies find them lovely with cheese, and they can even be roasted and added to coffee (Viennese coffee) for an interesting twist.

The ‘Adam fig’ is a good eating fig and suitable for drying. ‘White Genoa’ is an old South African favourite because it is known to produce a substantial breba harvest and is used for jams. ‘Black Mission’ figs, with their insane sweetness are delicious to eat on their own, but they are also perfect for desserts, or with yogurt or tangy fresh cheeses like mascarpone or fresh ricotta. Also try them whole or halved on cheese platters, chopped-up on crostini, or sliced and layered into fresh fruit tarts. ‘Cape White’ is one of the best tasting white varieties with a sweet, delicate flavour which is great fresh, dried or preserved. It is also known for making some of the best tasting jams. ‘Cape Brown’ is excellent for eating fresh and for jams, preserves.

Ripe figs are very perishable and need to be eaten within 2 to 3 days after harvesting. Fresh figs have a 10% sugar content whereas dried figs have a 50% sugar content which assists with preservation of the fruit. You can dry the fruits out in the sun yourself, and these dried fruits are an excellent preserving alternative and can keep for 6 to 8 months.

In the Garden:

Known for its adaptability and high productivity whilst being easy to prune and maintain, the fig tree is a valuable addition to the edible garden, and because a healthy tree can live for 100 years, a rewarding long term investment. In large gardens figs can be allowed to grow unrestricted, but in smaller gardens their roots should be contained if they are growing in the ground, or alternatively, they can be grown in large pots. 

Fig trees take well to pruning and can be trained into beautiful shapes, and even make an effective hedge or screen.  The branches are also flexible and because they can be trained easily, are ideal to  espalier along walls, to increase the amount of produce for space occupied, and in cold climates, the warmth generated from the wall will be very beneficial.

Companion Planting:

Figs do not have companion plants because their large leaves will cast too much shade for most other plant to grow underneath. If you only have space for one fig tree in the garden, but still want it to look pretty underneath, plant groundcovers underneath the tree when it is still young, and they should grow happily together, as long as the groundcover is not too vigorous.

Fig Tree Image by Erich Westendarp from PixabayFig Tree Image by Erich Westendarp from PixabayCultivation:

To ensure optimum growth and cropping, it is important to choose a fig variety well suited to your local climate. Because most of South Africa is blessed with abundant sunshine and long hot summers, the good news for the average gardener is that figs will produce good crops in most areas of the country provided the correct variety is chosen and the right care is given.

Unfortunately some areas of the Lowveld and KwaZulu-Natal are just too humid or wet to ensure good crops. The other constricting factor is frost, and fig varieties vary in hardiness. Young fig trees should be protected from frost during their first and second winters, and generally, reasonably established fig trees which are about 3 years old will tolerate periodic frosts, but hard freezes, where the temperatures regularly drop below -5°C can lead to the death of branches and dormant buds. The plants may even die down right to the roots, but will often re-shoot again in spring. However, this will affect the crop.

The majority of South Africa's commercial fig farmers are found In the Klein-Karoo district of the Western Cape, because the climate here is perfect for them, but many other areas of South Africa, show promise with the right cultivar. Figs originate from hot, dry areas with low humidity, where the summers are sunny and long and the winters short and cool. Warm dry weather during harvesting in summer is also essential, as excessive moisture can cause cracks in the ripening figs. The trees are mildly salt tolerant, and can be planted in cool coastal regions if they sheltered from strong, salty winds.

The common fig (Ficus carica) contains only female flowers and doesn’t require pollination, because it produces figs through parthenocarpy (meaning no fertilisation is required and the fruit is technically sterile.) Fig trees are deciduous becoming dormant in winter, and open rooted, dormant trees are planted during winter in a sunny, well drained position. Plants grown in nursery bags can be planted at any time.

Figs can be grown either in the garden or in a container, but in the open soil, and especially in small gardens restriction of the fig trees’ roots will be required, because although the roots are shallow, they are very vigorous and will cause damage to buildings and underground pipes if they are sited in the wrong location. To restrict root growth, large boxes can be dug into the soil and lined with non-toxic materials like specialised landscaping materials designed for this purpose, or you can build boxes out of bricks and cement, but remember to leave drainage holes.  

Select a site in full sun, and one which is sheltered from excessive winds, and because a healthy fig tree can live long as 100 years, the planting holes need to be well prepared with generous amounts of organic material. Figs are adaptable to most reasonably moisture-retentive but well-drained soils, tolerating a wide range of soil types like sand, clay and loam. They do not like extremely alkaline or acid soil, and thrive in sandy loam soils with a pH of 6 to 6.5. If your soil is too acidic, apply agricultural lime annually.

Feed all around the root zone in spring with a balanced organic fertiliser, keeping it well away from the stem. To promote fruit production, start feeding regularly later in the season with a high-potassium fertiliser. Your last feeding should be done in February to harden the tree off before winter. Mulching the roots regularly with well-rotted organic material will keep them cool in summer and increase moisture retention.

If you are growing figs in pots, remember that they require large containers to produce good crops, and will also need more regular watering and feeding than those growing in the ground. Water thoroughly every two to three days in summer, and keep on the dry side in winter. Feed every two weeks during the growing season with a liquid fertiliser for fruiting plants, diluted at ½ the recommended strength, together with a monthly feed with Biogrow’s, Biotrissol, mixed at ½ the recommended strength.

Although figs are drought tolerant, because of their shallow root system they love regular light irrigation, rather than a weekly deep watering, and for this reason, drip irrigation is perfect for figs. If fig trees are not irrigated correctly fruit drop will occur during hot and dry conditions. One the other extreme, if you notice the leaves are turning yellow and dropping, it is likely that you are overwatering.

Because they have shallow, spreading root systems, they are sensitive to weed competition, so keep the beds weed free by removing them manually.

Harvesting:

Fig trees take 2 to 3 years after planting to bear fruit but will continue to produce good crops for 50 years or more. The first 15 years are the most productive after which the crops will become lighter.

Depending on the variety, and the region where they are grown, fig harvesting in South Africa starts from November to December and can continue until April or May. Harvest early in the morning to avoid the midday heat, as this can cause damage to the figs, causing the fig stalks to detach from the fruit when picking and remaining on the tree. And, because they bruise easily, handle ripe figs with care.

Figs need to ripen on the tree, and because they ripen quickly, are harvested daily, usually over a period of a couple of months.  The fruits are ready to harvest when the skin feels soft and starts to split when squeezed gently,  and when the neck of the fruit starts to wilt, hanging downward, and comes away from the tree with ease. Different varieties of figs turn a different colour when ripe and can range from green to dark to brown. You will know what colour to look out for once you know your variety.

The latex or ‘milk’ may cause skin blisters, so professional pickers wear gloves, sleeves and sometimes even scarves to prevent their skin being exposed to the acidic ‘milk’.

Pruning:

Figs do well with pruning and are very forgiving of pruning mistakes, so don’t be afraid to cut them back. It is not necessary to prune young trees, and for those growing in pots, very little will be required. Give old trees a more thorough prune by removing half the length of each branch, which will encourage fresh new growth.

In South Africa fig trees are pruned in the winter months, from June onwards, when the plants are dormant, and pruning is done mainly to keep the trees ‘open’ for sunlight penetration, and to keep the branches lower for easier handpicking. Remove a few inside branches if the centre part of the tree looks like it has become crowded, and always remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches completely.

Propagation:

Figs are easily propagated by taking cuttings of branches which are one year old, and at least 20cm long. These are treated with the appropriate rooting hormone and potted up. They can be planted out within one year, or once they have developed strong roots.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

To protect the fruits from birds, squirrels and wasps, use nets to cover the trees.

Fruit splitting occurs during excessively wet weather conditions.

Fig trees are fairly resilient, but can suffer from various diseases like: fig mosaic virus that produces blotches on the leaves. The virus is spread by mites and the only way to treat it is to kill the mites with a miticide or horticultural oil. Anthracnose is a group of fungal diseases that cause black/brown spots on the leaves, which gradually turn yellow and wilt - treat with a fungicide. Fig rust causes the leaves to develop small orange spots that increase in size as the season progresses. The leaves themselves may droop. Fig rust can be controlled with copper-based fungicides.

Pests include fig scale and mealybugs which can be controlled with a mineral oil, as well as aphids and red spider mites, which can be controlled by using an insecticidal soap.  Snails and slugs may also need to be controlled with organic baits.

Several species of beetles, as well as fruit flies can enter through wide-eye varieties, where a weeping eye is indication of infection, and ants can also invade the open centres. Small-eye varieties are preferable in areas which experience fruit fly and beetle problems.

A serious and common pest is the fig tree borer (Phryneta spinator.)  The female lays its eggs near the base of a branch and after about two weeks the larvae hatch and feed on the bark before tunnelling into the tree. Control is difficult when the larvae are already in the tree. Try squirting insecticide into the tunnels with a syringe (after first testing it on a leaf to ensure that it will not harm the tree).

The fig tree borer lays its eggs in the bark up to 600mm high on the main stem, and to help prevent them laying their eggs, wrap the entire lower portion of the tree in shade netting, or mosquito gauze, making sure that the netting or gauze does not touch the tree, so the female is unable to land on the bark.

Encircling the top of the netting with silver foil coated with Vaseline will keep the beetles from breaching it. And laying shade netting on the ground around the base of the tree will also help to stop newly emerged beetles from climbing the tree. The fig tree borer has very few natural enemies, although a parasitic fungus called “Isaria” and several species of parasitic wasps can attack the larvae.

Caution:

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.

Toxicity:

The Ficus family produce latex (milky sap) to which some people are allergic, and which can cause skin blisters, so pickers wear gloves, sleeves and sometimes even scarves to prevent their skin being exposed to the acidic ‘milk’. The sap in the leaves can also be very irritating to dogs and cats, whether it gets on their skin or is ingested.

While figs for dogs are generally regarded as being safe, and because they offer a number of nutritional benefits to dogs, many dog owners opt to feed these fruits to their pets. According to Organic Facts, figs contain lots of potassium, which can help dogs keep their blood pressure down. However, figs aren't without their risks and some dogs are particularly sensitive to these fruits and may experience unpleasant side effects after consuming them. Organic Facts states that figs contain two enzymes called ficin and ficusin, and these enzymes can be too strong for your dog's stomach to handle. Dogs who consume more than a few figs at a time often have an upset stomach along with diarrhoea or vomiting. Some dogs may even develop rashes, sores, or inflammation on their mouths and tongues.