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Fruitful Figs

Growing in my garden, a bit too far away to see from the house, is a very interesting plant that bears dark, sweet fruit. Twice a day in the late summer, my husband goes to check on this prized plant, a hardy fig, Ficus carica. He is checking twice a day for ripe or almost ripe figs because it seems that someone or something finds the fruit as irresistible as he does, and is plucking them from the tree almost moments before he arrives to harvest the figs.

Hardiness and protection
The hardy fig is planted in this location because of a large stone wall at the back of our property line. This wall provides the perfect protected environment for growing this marginally hardy tree. Hardy to USDA zones 7, 8-10, and with winter protection to zone 5, the hardy fig needs all the protection it can get in my zone 6-7 garden. The wall provides excellent wind protection and also radiates heat to the surrounding area, keeping the air temperature slightly warmer and more stable.

Due to its marginal hardiness in our area, this beautiful plant can be killed to the ground depending on the winter, even when planted in the perfect site. Not to worry, because the hardy fig—which can produce figs on the old wood but produces its largest crop of figs from the new wood—can be cut all the way back to the ground due to winter injury, and you can still harvest figs the following year.

The fig is a unique fruit in that it does not flower like most trees. The flowers are actually all clustered inside the fruit. An enlarged stem base or sac called a synconium holds the flowers forming a fig. In its native habitat, a wasp enters the synconium through a small opening and pollinates the flowers inside. But this wasp cannot survive our winters. Fortunately for us, fig trees that will survive and grow here are self-fruitful and do not require pollination.

When is it ripe?
Fully ripe figs in our area typically range in size from 1 inch to 2-1/2 inches long and are shaped like a tiny pear. Immature figs are hard and green, but ripen to a dark purplish brown. The fruit has a lovely sweet flavor, and even if you enjoy more savory flavors like I do, you will enjoy the flavor of the fig. When you eat the fruit, the slightly crunchy texture—which we would assume are seeds—is actually from the crunchiness from the flower parts. Figs are extremely perishable, and have to be harvested and eaten or dried within a day or so of ripening.

Growth and care
This beautiful plant has large, simple 3- to 5-lobed leaves that can reach 4 to 8 inches in length. The leaves can be as wide as they are long, are slightly fuzzy, and have a muted olive green color. The fig tree has a slightly tropical appearance, making it a very beautiful small tree or large shrub.

Figs can grow 15 to 20 feet or more where hardy, and at this larger size can produce a lot of fruit. In our area, they are most often seen growing as a large shrub due to their winter hardiness, but still produce an impressive amount of fruit. Over the past five winters, my fig has died back to the ground twice and has produced fruit every year but one.

The fig is very easy to prune, and even large specimens take pruning very well. If your fig dies to the ground, simply cut it off low and watch it grow back. Sometimes you won’t know if it has died back until the new growth begins. If so, wait for the new growth and when it appears, simply prune to the point of new growth. Either way, you may need to thin out the new shoots that emerge by at least 50 percent and try to train it back into a semi-tree form. In a tree form, they just look better and it’s easier to harvest the fruit.

A member of the mulberry family, the hardy fig is very drought-resistant when established, but prefers soils that are moist. In some parts of California, the hardy fig really is considered invasive.

We choose to plant our fig far away from our patio area and near the stone wall for winter protection, but also because we knew that, if it really started to produce fruit, we would be in for a mess if it attracted a lot of bees seeking the sweet ripe fruit as it fell to the ground. So far that hasn’t been a problem.

For now we enjoy the small amount of fresh figs we get each summer and fall, and we continue to rely on store-bought dried figs for our holiday recipes. The mystery remains as to who or what is getting most of our ripe figs before we do. Perhaps it is a possum, a raccoon, or the squirrels. What I really suspect is that my husband is just eating them before he comes back to the house and is blaming the poor innocent wildlife. He does have a really big sweet tooth and fresh figs taste so good.

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