Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Fabulous Figs

by Robert Kourik

Black Mission figs, one of the most important fig varieties, are shown here packed for the fresh market at DeBenedetto Farms in California's southwestern Central Valley.

Ask yourself: Are figs sinfully delicious, or just plain peculiar? It's one or the other for most of us. Those of us who agree with the former are attracted by the hedonistic potential of a sun-ripened, honey-dripping, rotund fig. I wait impatiently for them, and relish peak fig season, which occurs now, in mid- to late summer.

Fig trees have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, and most likely they will be for another 5,000. Befitting its antiquity, this pear-shaped fruit is consumed many ways. A few examples: as fresh fruit, sugared and dried whole, cooked with lamb kabobs, fermented into wine, brandied, wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with olive oil, made into jam, blended into every kind of cake, cookie, pastry and pie, dried into a paste, stuffed with sweet chocolate, and even pickled. In America, add to all of the above, stuffing fig paste between a cookie covering. Figs thus became "Newtonized."

Where Figs Grow

Fruit tree catalogs list fig trees (Ficus carica) as hardy throughout USDA Hardiness Zones 7 through 11 without protection, and in zones 4 through 7 with winter cover. But your yard's microclimate will determine whether a fig tree will flourish. Conservatively, figs are rated as hardy to 10° to 15° F (zone 8). At 10° F branch tips are damaged, and at 0° F they'll die to the ground but resprout the following spring.

Where fully winter-hardy, fig trees are very easy to grow. They are drought-tolerant and relatively disease- and pest-free. Granted, you won't find large, mature fig trees in Fargo, Taos, or St. Louis, but its range spans up the coastal lands of the Carolinas at least as far north as New Jersey, along the southern United States' border, and into the upper third of California's seacoast. Given the support of some horticultural gymnastics, the fig range extends further up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver Island; into the high deserts of the West, such as El Paso; in the Midwest as far north as Chicago, and up the Atlantic Coast as far as Montreal.

Winter Protection in the North

In zones 4 through 7, fig fanatics wrap their trees until they look more like a Christo fantasy than a plant. Others uproot their trees and bury them. If you want to try this, wait until late fall when the tree is dormant, then dig a hole about 2 feet deep, beginning 12 inches away from the trunk. After some judicious pruning, trim the rootball to size with your shovel and tilt the tree into the hole. Cover it with boards, some plastic sheeting to keep the tree dry, and plenty of soil, leaves, sawdust, or pine needles.

More permanent arrangements involve training the tree flat against a south-facing brick wall and covering it in winter with glass or plastic. But in every case, the goal is to insulate the wood to prevent dehydration and wind chill.

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