Fig fruits are bell-shaped, with a wide, flat bottom narrowing to a pointed top. When the fruit ripens, the top may bend, forming a "neck." Figs can be brown, purple, green, yellow or black, and vary in size. The skin is slightly wrinkled and leathery. They are often dried for preservation, since the fresh fruits are highly perishable. The fig flowers develop inside the fruit and cannot be seen.
Figs are originally from small Asia and are one of the first fruits cultivated ever. The Greek mention them and around 60 A.C. and Plato promoted the fig as being the nutrition for athletes. A story is known of the Greek government that had forbidden all export of figs once to assure themselves a good outcome at The Olympic Games. The Greek knew about twenty nine fig sorts. Officially figs were imported to Europe around 1600. Today there are more than 600 different fig types.
Location: Figs require full sun all day to ripen palatable fruits. Trees become enormous, and will shade out anything growing beneath. Repeated pruning to control size causes loss of crop. The succulent trunk and branches are unusually sensitive to heat and sun damage, and should be whitewashed if particularly exposed. Roots are greedy, traveling far beyond the tree canopy. Figs are not a fruit tree for small places. The fine roots that invade garden beds, however, may be cut without loss to the tree. In areas with short (less than 120 days between frosts), cool summers, espalier trees against a south-facing, light-colored wall to take advantage of the reflected heat. In coastal climates, grow in the warmest location, against a sunny wall or in a heat trap. For container grown plants, replace most of the soil in the tub every three years and keep the sides of the tub shaded to prevent overheating in sunlight.
Irrigation: Young fig tees should be watered regularly until fully established. In dry western climates, water mature trees deeply at least every one or two weeks. Desert gardeners may have to water more frequently. Mulch the soil around the trees to conserve moisture. If a tree is not getting enough water, the leaves will turn yellow and drop. Also, drought-stressed trees will not produce fruit and are more susceptible to nematode damage. Recently planted trees are particularly susceptible to water deficits, often runt out, and die.
Pruning: Fig trees are productive with or without heavy pruning. It is essential only during the initial years. Trees should be trained according to use of fruit, such as a low crown for fresh-market figs. Since the crop is borne on terminals of previous year's wood, once the tree form is established, avoid heavy winter pruning, which causes loss of the following year's crop. It is better to prune immediately after the main crop is harvested, or with late-ripening cultivars, summer prune half the branches and prune the remainder the following summer. If radical pruning is done, whitewash the entire tree.
Fertilization: Regular fertilizing of figs is usually necessary only for potted trees or when they are grown on sands. Excess nitrogen encourages rank growth at the expense of fruit production, and the fruit that is produced often ripens improperly, if at all. As a general rule, fertilize fig trees if the branches grew less than a foot the previous year. Apply a total of 1/2 - 1 pound of actual nitrogen, divided into three or four applications beginning in late winter or early spring and ending in July.
Frost Protection: In borderline climates, figs can be grown out of doors if they are given frost protection. Brown Turkey, Brunswick and Blue Celeste cultivars are some of the best choices. Plant against a wall or structure which provides some heat by radiation. Or grow as a bush, pruning the trunk to near ground level at the end of the second year. Allow several stems to replace the trunk, and grow as you would a lilac. For further protection, erect a frame over the plant, covering and surrounding it with heavy carpet in winter. Keep the roots as dry as possible during winter, raising a berm to exclude melting snows during thaws. In northern climates, the fig is best grown as a tub or pot plant that can be brought into a warm location in winter and taken out again in spring. Dormant buds are more susceptible to freezing than wood. Freezing may also create a trunk without live buds; regrowth is possible only from roots.
Propagation: Fig plants are usual propagated by cuttings. Select foot-long pieces of dormant wood, less than 1 inch diameter, with two-year-old wood at base. One-year twigs with a heel of two-year branch at the base may also be used. Dip the cuttings in a rooting hormone and allow them to callus one week in a moist place at 50-60° F. Summer cuttings may also be made, but they do best if defoliated and winterized in a refrigeration for 2-3 weeks before potting. Leafy shoots require a mist bed. Particularly rare cultivars may be propagated on rootstocks, or older trees, topworked by whip, cleft or crown grafting, or chip or patch budding. Rooted cuttings should be planted in 22 to 30 feet squares, depending upon the capacity of the soil and the ultimate size of the tree. Keep roots moist until planted. Never transplant or disturb a young tree while it is starting new growth in spring, as this is likely to to kill it. Cut the tree back to 2 ft high upon planting and whitewash the trunk.
Pests and Diseases: Fig tree roots are a favorite food of gophers, who can easily kill a large plant. One passive method of control is to plant the tree in a large aviary wire basket. Deer are not particularly attracted to figs, but birds can cause a lot of damage to the fruit. Nematodes, particularly in sandy soils, attack roots, forming galls and stunting the trees. Mitadulid and Carpophilus dried fruit beetles can enter ripening fruit through the eye and cause damage by introducing fungi and rots. They frequently breed in fallen citrus fruits. Keep a clean orchard by destroy fallen fruits and do not grow near citrus trees. Euryphid mites cause little damage but are carriers of mosaic virus from infected to clean trees.
Mosaic virus, formerly considered benign, probably causes crop reduction. Symptoms resemble potassium deficiency--leaves are marbled with yellow spots, and the veins are light colored. Symptoms are often not apparent until the tree is older or when it becomes heat or water-stressed. Do not purchase infected trees and isolate those which show symptoms. Botrytis causes a blast of branch terminals, which dry out and turn charcoal-like. The attack usually starts from half-grown fruits damaged by the first frost of winter, then enters the main stem as a reddish expanding necrotic zone. The infection is generally self-controlling and stops in the spring. It can be prevented by removing mummies and frost damaged fruits as soon as they are observed. Fig canker is a bacterium which enters the trunk at damaged zones, causing necrosis and girdling and loss of branches. It usually starts at sunburned areas, so it is important to keep exposed branches whitewashed. Rhyzopus smut attacks ripened fruits on the tree, causing charcoal black coating inside the fruit, and is worst on cultivars with large, open eyes. Most ripe fruit losses are from Endosepsis (Fusarium) and Aspergillus rot which is introduced by insects, even pollinating wasps. The fruit appears to burst, or a ropy, mucus-like exudate drains from the eye, rendering the fruit are inedible. The best control is to destroy all crop for one year, apply diazinon granules beneath trees to eliminate insect vectors, and destroy adjacent wild trees. Penicillium fungus will attack dried fruits in storage but can be controlled by keeping them dry, or sulfuring before storage.
Harvest: Figs must be allowed to ripen fully on the tree before they are picked. They will not ripen if picked when immature. A ripe fruit will be slightly soft and starting to bend at the neck. Harvest the fruit gently to avoid bruising. Fresh figs do not keep well and can be stored in the refrigerator for only 2 - 3 days. Some fig varieties are delicious when dried. They take 4 - 5 days to dry in the sun and 10 -12 hours in a dehydrator. Dried figs can be stored for six to eight months.
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