Figs

Figs

Ficus carica

Origin:

The Middle East, between Arabia and Jordan, with records of human use as early as 3000BC.  It is the only species in the genus grown for its fruit.

Climate:

The fig grows well with a Mediterranean type climate, such as Perth, with cool winters and a hot, dry summer.  Water requirements are moderate, up to 1000 mm pa, and it has some drought tolerance.  Young trees are susceptible to winter frost damage but mature trees are more resistant. 

Plant Description:

It is a semi-deciduous shrub or small tree, 7-10m tall, with soft wood and bark that is usually smooth and without fissures.   The large dark green coriaceous alternate leaves, 15-30cm long, are 3-7 lobed with varying margins.  All plant parts produce latex which can cause skin irritations.  Figs have a very extensive fibrous root system which can extend 10-14m laterally and 7m in depth, so it can interfere with water and nutrient needs of neighbouring plants and also present problems if planted too close to paths, driveways, drains etc.

Relatives:

Moraceae Family. Many relatives, including mulberries, breadfruit and jakfruit.

Soils:

Provided there is good drainage, figs can be grown in a wide range of soils from sands to heavier clays.  Preferred pH is 6-7.8.  

Propagation:

Varieties are normally propagated from 25cm hardwood cuttings taken in winter; those with a reduced amount of internal pith and that have been callused are most successful.  Fig trees are sometimes top-worked by grafting.

Cultivars:

There are many named varieties, with Brown Turkey dominant in Australia. Adam, Genoa and Adriatic are also suitable.

Flowering and Pollination:

Inflorescences are formed within a synconium, which is a fleshy hollow receptacle with individual flowers lining the interior wall.  There are 3 different types of unisexual flowers: long-styled pistillate, short styled-pistillate and staminate.  However, the pistillate flowers of most modern (common) figs develop into fruits parthenocarpically; other types are pollinated by the small fig wasp which oviposits its eggs within the flower ovaries. 

Cultivation:

Plant in a sunny location.  Good watering is needed during fruit development. Figs are not nutrient hungry but they do respond to fertilizing in spring and early summer; if overdone, vegetative rather than reproductive growth will be favoured.

Wind Tolerance:

Good. Damaged leaves are replaced quickly.

Pruning:

The main crop is borne on new wood, so pruning the tips in August will increase shoot growth and produce higher yields. Pruning also involves skirting and removal of dead and-crossing branches. A vase shape and topping to 3-4m will ensure easier harvest.  They can be espaliered and grown in pots.

A useful renewal method for figs involves developing 3 main trunks. Each year, prune one trunk back severely, in rotation. This will give you a tree that always has one trunk regrowing, and the other two in different stages of fruit production, and limits the overall tree to a more manageable size.  Newly exposed trunk and branches may need protection from sunburn.

The Fruit:

Each fruit consists of many small drupelets with seeds which are usually undeveloped, all surrounded by an enlarged and fleshy peduncle.. The fruit skin may be a yellowy-green to brown or purple. Flesh colour ranges from white through pink to red.  Nutrient levels in the dried fruit are excellent, with high fibre, Fe and Ca; sugar content is 50%.

Fruit Production and Harvesting:

Trees take 2-3 years to commence bearing. Fruit is picked daily for eight weeks from January to April in Perth, There may be a very small (breba} crop borne on old wood and harvested in November and December, but this is of poor quality, especially with the Brown Turkey variety. Fresh fruit can be stored at 4°C for only a few days.

Fruit Uses:

Figs are delicious when eaten fresh or dried, but also have many culinary uses such as in jams, tarts, glacé, fruit leather, and cooked products.

Pests and Diseases:

The major problems are birds, also Mediterranean fruit fly, scale insects and rust disease. Birds cause more damage to fruit that is over-ripe.

Comments:

The fig is only a small commercial crop in Western Australia, as the fruit has a limited storage life and is easily bruised. However, it is an excellent crop in home gardens in Perth, most areas of the South West and as far north as Carnarvon.   Well-managed mature trees can produce hundreds of fruit per year.