Although considered a fruit, the fig is actually a flower that is inverted into itself. The seeds are drupes, or the real fruit.
Figs are the only fruit to fully ripen and semi-dry on the tree.
For many years the fig has been used as a coffee substitute. The fruit contains a proteolytic enzyme that is considered as an aid to digestion and is used by the pharmaceutical industry.
This proteolytic enzyme, also known as ficin, primarily contained in the stem of the fruit, helps to break down tissue and was for many years the major ingredient in Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. Because of its high alkalinity, it has been mentioned as beneficial to persons wishing to quit smoking.
Dried figs were first sold in a commercially manufactured cookie in 1892.
Figs contain a natural humectant – a chemical that will extend freshness and moistness in baked products.
Another chemical found in figs, Psoralens, has been used for thousands of years to treat skin pigmentation diseases. Psoralens that occur naturally in figs, some other plants and fungi, is a skin sensitizer that promotes tanning in the sun.
The common fig probably originated in the fertile part of southern Arabia and ancient records show that the Sumerians and Assyrians were familiar with it. Even though the edible fig most likely came from ancient Arabia, the cultivated fig industry most certainly began in western Asia or Asia Minor, probably in that center of ancient civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known as Mesopotamia.
Figs spread slowly through Asia Minor and Syria to Mesopotamia, Persia and the Arabian Desert, becoming highly developed in Iran, Armenia, and Afghanistan.
India first cultivated figs in the fourteenth century and edible native varieties can still be found growing in the Punjab hills.
The first verifiable report of figs in China was reported in the fourteenth century as well, and it is assumed that by then they were firmly established in the Far East.
Evidence indicates that the fig industry spread by the Phoenicians and the Greeks throughout the Old World, and that their efforts resulted in the introduction of figs along the African coast, Spain, Portugal, and up to the English Channel by the end of the 14th century and prior to introduction into Greece and Italy.
Figs were first introduced into the New World by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, most notably to the West Indies in 1520 and to Peru in 1528. From the West Indies, Greece, and France, figs quickly spread across the southeastern United States where they are most commonly known as a dooryard tree rather than a thriving commercial industry. They were imported from the West Indies to Spanish missions in Mexico and subsequently spread to California with the Franciscan missionaries who planted them in the mission gardens at San Diego in 1769 and up the Pacific coast to Santa Clara by 1792, Ventura by 1793, and later on to Sonoma, giving the name Mission to those first dark purple California figs.
Along with the rush for gold, American settlers brought a wide variety of figs to California, and by 1867 there were over 1,000 acres of fig trees in the Sacramento Valley and 35 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The most popular variety, the White Adriatic fig, was planted in a 27-acre orchard in Fresno as early as 1885, and produced the first carload of dried figs shipped by rail to the east in 1889.
The White Adriatic remained popular until the 20th century, but its quality when dried was inferior to imported figs, leading to the introduction of the Lob Injir variety of Smyrna fig. This new introduction grew and produced bountiful fruit but it all dropped by early summer, never maturing and ripening.
It was not until 1890 when C. Roeding demonstrated that caprification was necessary for these to set fruit. Finally, caprifigs imported by W. T. Swingle from Asia Minor, Smyrna, Mexico, Greece, and Algeria resulted in successful issue of the specific blastophaga (fig) wasp needed for pollination and the California commercial fig industry was born on June 23, 1899. Today this popular golden-brown fig is the Smyrna variety that was brought to California’s San Joaquin Valley from Turkey in 1882, and was renamed Calimyrna in honor of its new homeland.
Impressed with the land in Fresno in spite of its hardpan and hog wallows, J.C. Forkner purchased 6,000 acres and planted figs in 1910 blasting holes through the hardpan with dynamite so that tree roots could get through to the deep soil beneath. With an enduring belief in the American dream, J.C. Forkner subdivided and sold this land so that people could own a few acres of figs, build a home, and be prosperous on 1-acre to 1,000-acre plots with an average holding of 16 acres per owner. About at that time, fig orchards covered much of the area that is within the city limits of Fresno, today. By 1931, California had 57,278 acres of figs, with virtually all of it located in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Day Length and Chilling Zones
Figs require full sunlight for maximum fruit production. When choosing a site for figs, select an area that has sun for most of the day or expect reduced performance from the trees. Early morning sun is particularly important to dry dew from the plants, thereby reducing the incidence of diseases. Figs are frost and freeze sensitive and perform best south of the 800-hour chilling zone. Mature figs which are fully dormant can endure temperatures of 10 degrees F with little damage.
Although figs can be grown in all types of soil, they do not tolerate poorly drained sites. Avoid sites and soils where water stands for more than 24 hours after a rain. In areas of poor drainage, roots receive insufficient oxygen which results in stunted growth and eventual death of the tree. Figs are relatively salt-tolerant and can be grown along the coast near brackish water.
Types of Figs
There are four distinct types of figs: Common Fig, Caprifig, Smyrna, and San Pedro.
Common Figs are the only figs significant to commercial growers in Texas. These figs develop parthenocarpically (without pollination) and are by far the most prevalent type of fig grown in Texas. The fruit does not have true seeds and is primarily produced on wood from the current season. Most varieties recommended for Texas are of the Common Fig type.
Caprifigs produce a small non-edible fruit; however, the flowers inside the Caprifig product pollen. This pollen is essential for fertilizing fruit of the Smyrna and San Pedro types. The pollen is transported from the Caprifig to the pollen-sterile types by a Blastophaga wasp. Commercial growers hang baskets of Blastophaga-infested Caprifigs so that the wasps can effectively fertilize the fruit. Caprifigs were grown successfully at Del Rio, Texas, as early as 1901.
Smyrna Fig varieties produce large edible fruit with true seeds. The Blastophaga wasp and Capriifigs are required for pollination and normal fruit development. If this fertilization process does not occur, fruit will not develop properly and will fall from the tree. Smyrna-type figs are commonly sold as dried figs.
San Pedro type figs bear two crops of fruit in one season – one crop on the previous season’s growth and a second crop on current growth. The first crop, called the Breba crop, is parthenocarpic and does not require pollination. Fruit of the second crop is the Smyrna type and requires pollination from the Caprifig. Breba crops are produced early in the spring on last season’s wood. However, the second crop of Smyrna type may fail to set because of lack of pollination from Blastophaga and Caprifig. This second crop fruit drop frequently discourages homeowners.
HOW FIGS GROW
Figs are easy to grow in warm climates, but product their best fruit in Mediterranean climates with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Although they are a subtropical species, mature trees are fully cold hardy to 15 or 20 degrees F. People who whish to grow figs outside their normal range must plant in containers or go to considerable efforts to protect them during the winter.
In the ground, fig plants can quickly reach 15 to 30 feet in height. The canopy can spread equally wide. The root system is typically very shallow without a taproot and can easily spread to three times the diameter of the canopy. Ideally, fig plants should have a well-drained loam soil with plenty of organic matter, but they will tolerate average to poor soil. Once they are established, they are somewhat drought tolerant (probably due to their very extensive and wide-ranging root system). Figs tolerate soils with pH ranging from 5.5 to 8.0. Growers with acidic soils should apply lime to bring the pH up to the fig’s preferred pH of 6.0 or 6.5. Alkaline soils will also support figs, if there are no black alkali deposits present.
Plants need plenty of sun (8 or more hours) and heat which helps ripen the fruit. Figs respond very well (better than most fruit trees) to heavy applications of manure and compost. Be sure not to apply fertilizers too late in the growing season since that would spur new growth that cannot harden off before winter. Apply 2 to 3 cups of a balanced (6-6-6 or 8-8-8) fertilizer with micro-nutrients three times a year to mature in-ground plants. If you grow figs in containers, we recommend a complete slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote. Follow the package directions. Organic growers should apply generous amounts of compost and a high-nitrogen fertilizer like cottonseed, soybean or alfalfa meal.
For the best fruit production, water your figs regularly during the growing season unless rainfall is adequate. Take care that the soil is not constantly soggy. When fall arrives, stop watering and allow your plants to harden off. A word of caution: heavy rains and excessive or sporadic watering may cause the fruit to split. The amount of splitting varies from variety to variety, but a good rule of thumb is that the riper the figs, the more they will split and sour.
Container culture can be successful if you are diligent about watering and feeding the plants. Remember that nutrients leach quickly from containers. The easiest approach is to use a hefty pot (15 gallons or larger) and let the figs grow 5 to 10 feet tall with regular annual pruning of tops and roots to control the size. In climates where winter temperatures fall below 15 to 20 degrees F, you will need to bring potted plants into an unheated garage or shed.
California's Fresh Fig Season starts in mid-May and continues through mid-December. With California's excellent climate and exquisite soil for fig production you can see why California Figs are a fantastic fruit. In California, there are six primary varieties of figs:
- Black Mission (dried/fresh). Purple and black skin with deep earthy flavor like a Cabernet. Available mid-May through November
- Calimyrna (dried/fresh). Pale yellow skin with a buttery and nutty flavor like a Chardonnay. Available July through September.
- Kadota (dried/fresh). Creamy amber skin with a light flavor like a Sauvignon Blanc. Available mid-June through October.
- Brown Turkey (fresh). Light purple to black skin with robust flavor like a Pinot Noir. Available mid-May through December.
- Sierras (dried/fresh). Light-colored skin with a fresh, sweet flavor like a Riesling. Available June through November.
- Tiger Figs (fresh). Relatively new variety. Light yellow color with unique dark green stripes and a bright red-purple interior fruit with fruity, raspberry, citrus flavor. Available mid-July through November.
Fresh Figs are very perishable and should be kept refrigerated. The skin is fragile, and often scars during the growing period from the leaves rubbing against the fruit. These marks do not hurt the flesh inside at all. Recommended storage temperature is 32 to 36 degrees F or 0 to 2 degrees C. Use figs as soon as possible. Under ideal conditions, fresh figs will store for as long as 5 to 7 days, or frozen in a sealed bag or container for up to 6 months.
How to Dry Fresh Figs
In the dry warm climates where figs are produced commercially, the figs are allowed to partially dry on the trees. To sun dry small quantities at home, wash the figs, cut away any imperfections and cut fruit in half lengthwise. Line the bottoms of well-ventilated boxes, wire racks or sheets of screening with a double layer of cheesecloth. Arrange a single layer of fruit in each so that pieces are not touching and set in full sun elevated several inches above the ground. Cover with tuille netting, tightly tucking the netting underneath the rack or screening to keep out insects.
If the nighttime temperature does not drop more than 20 degrees below the noontime temperature and the night air remains dry, racks may be left outdoors. Otherwise, it is advisable to dry figs indoors.
Turn the figs each morning. When the pieces are reduced in size and the skins are leathery, cut one open. If the inside is just slightly sticky, the figs should be heat-treated by placing in an oven at 110 to 115 degrees F for about 2 hours if they are to be stored for very long. Then, cool and place in airtight containers and store in a cool, dry place or place in tightly closed plastic bags and store in the freezer.
In more humid climates, oven drying is recommended. Wash the figs, cut away any imperfections and cut fruit in half lengthwise. Arrange a single layer of fruit on foil-lined baking sheets so that pieces are not touching and place in oven set at lowest temperature, 110-115 degrees F. Leaving oven door ajar and turning heat off and on to avoid heating figs above 135 degrees F keep figs in oven or dry at intervals turning them occasionally until they are reduced to about 1/4 their fresh weight. Cool and store immediately in airtight containers in a cool, dry place or place in plastic bags and store in the freezer.
When using a dehydrator, wash and cut the figs into 1/4-inch slices, discarding ends and any imperfections. Arrange on screens and place in dehydrator with the temperature set at 110-115 degrees F for 12 to 24hours, turning when dry enough not to tear and again before completely dry. Check dryness according to taste, but dry enough to prevent mold. When properly dried, figs are pliable but not wet, Cool before using or storing in airtight containers in a cool, dry place or in plastic bags in the freezer.
How to Freeze
Individually quick frozen Fresh Figs will keep up to 3 months in the freezer. Just wash thoroughly, sort any very soft ones to eat immediately, arrange whole ripe figs, well separated, on a wax paper-lined baking sheet and freeze. When frozen solid, transfer to resealable plastic bags. Thaw and eat as desired.
To store for longer periods, chill thoroughly to facilitate peeling, if desired. Then, slice or quarter figs and combine 5 cups of figs with 1 cup of sugar and mix well. Pack in freezer containers; cover tightly, freeze and store in freezer for up to 6 months.
If preferred, figs may be packed in syrup. Just combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 quart of water and heat to dissolve completely. Cool and pour over figs which have been prepared and packed in freezer containers, leaving at least 1-inch head space to allow for expansion while freezing.
Freezing will change the texture and the figs will be much softer when thawed. They are very good, but many prefer to simmer them in a sweet or savory liquid to serve. Or they may be sweetened, cooked and puréed before freezing to serve as toppings for ice cream, puddings and other desserts.