Gardening: Lesson on types, species of edible figs

Never figured that mentioning figs would create such interest

Brown Turkey figs in June.

Brown Turkey figs in June.

I was giving a talk on edible plants a few weeks ago when I made the mistake of touching on edible figs.

The mere mention of this plant, Ficus carica, triggered a barrage of questions from Klaus von Hardenberg, who is normally a pretty easy going guy.

It wasn’t long before the other horticulturist in the audience, Hendrik Meekel, entered the foray, which surrounded pollination and proper pruning, as well as questions around different types or possible species of edible figs.

Rather than prolong the quandary, I promised Klaus to look into the matter. So whether you like or not, you are about to get a lesson on edible figs, and you have no one else to blame here but the aforementioned Mr. von Hardenberg.

There are essentially four types of edible figs.

Only the common fig is grown in B.C.

Others include the Caprifig (male or goat fig), which is used to pollinate the two other types.

Smyrna fig requires pollination, and is often used for dried figs, or Fig Newtons, that we buy in the store. These are primarily grown in California, with Calimyra being the most common cultivar.

San Pedro is the third type, which is capable of producing its first (or breba) crop without pollination. The second crop requires pollen to be viable.

The pollination of these three types is carried out exclusively by the fig wasp (Blastophaga), which is not native here.

The last is the common fig, which is the one we are familiar with. This form is parthenocarpic and requires no pollination to set fruit, although the cultivars do vary in their ability to produce first and second crops.

The most common varieties of the common fig found here include Brown Turkey (green skin turns purplish when ripe, red fleshed), Desert King (green with strawberry red flesh, heavy early crop), and Italian Honey (green with honey-coloured flesh), which is also known as Peter’s Honey or Lattarula.

A few new introductions of note include Chicago Hardy (Zone 6 hardy, fruit ripens on new growth) and Ice Crystal, which features finely cut foliage, although some feel that it is a hybrid of Ficus afghanistanica.

The first crop of figs develops as small buds on the branch leaf nodes late in the season – these are overwintered, growing larger through spring and ripening in July. The fruit plumps and sags on the stem when ripe, and the skin may colour with varieties like Brown Turkey.

A second crop then starts to develop, but this does not usually ripen in our cool coastal summers – although with some heat we occasionally get a late September crop.

Figs grown in cold frames or greenhouses (like yours, Klaus) will crop on new wood because of the extended growing season provided.

Ficus carica is Zone 7 hardy and can be pruned in spring (after the danger of heavy frosts) to remove dead wood, but structural pruning and the heading of new laterals (to five leaves) should be done after the first crop is harvested, in midsummer.

Figs require a full sun exposure (at least six hours), sharp drainage and shelter from cold winter winds.

Some root containment is preferable and fertile soils (as well as high nitrogen fertilizer) should be avoided, as these will result in lush foliage but little fruit.

Planting is best done in late spring, so that new trees are fully rooted in before they face their first winter.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).