Harnessing summer’s flavor: Time for figs

Published 2:45 pm Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Summer is officially here. Most of us would argue the point summer arrived in SETX more than month ago (I certainly would). Hot and humid climate conditions and a “moisture-rich” environment are exacting conditions required by many trees to recuperate from last years’ temperature extremes including an extended drought. There is one fruit tree in particular which enjoys the heat – fig.

Many residents probably remember picking and eating figs as a kid – sweet, tangy fruits individually plucked from grandmothers’ tree in the back yard or by sneaking into a neighbor’s yard while they were away (I’ve heard of people who have done such … and that’s the story I’m sticking to). The “best” figs were a challenge and always seemed to need help from an adult (or someone taller) since the largest fruit were always just barely out of reach. Let me stop for a moment and simply say I’m not condoning past transgressions as a kid … it’s called trespassing. Our neighbors were friends, so please ask before taking. Gardeners as a group are kind-hearted individuals and will give most anything they have for the asking.

As an adult I’m always interested in providing homegrown fruits to family and friends, especially fruits which are grown with care, harvested at their peak of freshness, free from harmful pesticides or other chemicals. Fig trees are beautiful additions to the landscape having leaves which are big, shapely, umbrella-like in form.

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FUN FACT: Many people consider figs to be fruit but they are actually not a fruit but an inverted flower.

Figs are one of the oldest fruits known to mankind, they are specifically mentioned in the Bible (Garden of Eden) and considered scared by the Romans, who often used them for trade in Europe and the Middle East. It is thought the fig tree originated in Western Asia and that Spanish Explorers brought them to the Americas during the 14th century.

Fig trees are easy to grow and will produce figs for many years when provided full sun exposure, in a well-drained area. The fig is soft and sweet “fruit” with an almost creamy texture. They are used in baking, to sweeten meats, dried as a snack, and made into preserves with an assortment of added flavors. They are high in iron, fiber, potassium and calcium but if too many fresh figs are consumed could become cathartic: so, I don’t recommend eating too many at one time.

Fig trees grow well in our SETX environment (USDA zone 9a or 9b). Most varieties easily survive our cold winters once established having a rigorous root system. Fig trees require 10 hours of full sun daily and perform best in moist soil. My recommendation is to amend the planting site with compost and aged manure which will allow the trees’ shallow roots to spread quickly. Fig trees are known to grow 15 to 30 feet but have witnessed several trees twice this dimension and greater. Fertilize three times a year prior to August. Figs prefer a pH of 6.5.

Fig varieties which grow well in SETX include:

Brown Turkey: A very hardy fig, which can be grown in a container as well as in the ground. The sweet fruits mature to dark brown skin color when ripe.

Celeste: Similar to Brown Turkey and often called the Sugar Fig in the South. Celeste is a hardy fig with a violet-skinned mature fruit.

LSU Purple: A newer variety that reliably produces an early and late crop of figs in our area and the fruits are large. The trees are nematode resistant. LSU Gold is another new variety with yellow-skinned fruits.

O’Rourke: An older fig on a longer stalk. When the fruit is ripe the internal color is golden with a red center when soft ripe. Ripens around the last week of June in our area with the fruit hanging down when fully ripe.

Purple Passion: A very deep plum-colored fig with amber flesh and very delicious. It is prolific, super sweet and great for eating fresh off the tree.

Although the trees are easy to grow, some growers do experience a difficult insect problem (me included).

Fig borers (Ceramycidae) are annoying and can be frustrating while trying to manage. The long-horned beetles lay eggs beneath the fig bark at the base of the trunk during summer. White grub-like larvae emerge boring into the wood of infected tree, where the larvae reside for a few months to years. Young beetles develop and continue “boring” into the tree.

Controlling borers in fig trees is complicated since the tree provides insect protection throughout the lifecycle! A small tree with limited infection can be easily controlled by removing infected wood, then installing a protective net to prevent adult borers from laying eggs on the wound.

Where borer damage is pervasive and extensive, it’s often easiest to remove the tree since borer treatment is not simple … spraying the tree will not work. In fact, damage is often irreparable, causing sections of the fig tree to weaken and die. To prevent fig tree borers, plant a healthy tree with a ring of fine mesh netting about 2 inches away from the bark to prevent adult borers from depositing eggs.

Closely monitor fig trees, looking for adults to emerge and destroy them. Adults eat leaves and fruit. Sometimes gardeners are forced to make difficult decisions- the right solution (especially if the fig tree is weak or heavily infested) is to remove, then incinerate the tree.

So long for now fellow gardeners, let’s go out and grow ourselves a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time.

Share your comments and questions to Certified Texas Expert Gardner John Green at jongreene57@gmail.com.