Richard Bogren, Kirk-Ballard, Heather
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(07/05/19) It’s July, and we have a couple of events to celebrate. For one, our nation’s Independence Day. And for the many who grow figs, this date has become synonymous with the harvest season. Figs are one of the most widely planted fruit trees in the Louisiana home landscape because they’re easy to grow and readily available. With little effort, some space in the yard and plenty of sunshine, anyone can grow trees that will produce nutritious figs every July.
Figs (Ficus carica) are native to the Middle East and western Asia and have been naturalized in North America. They are one of the earliest known fruit trees to have been cultivated by humans and have been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. The fruit is high in potassium, iron and fiber. They are the famous main ingredient of the Fig Newton cookie, and fig preserves are common staple of many homes.
The trees are deciduous and can grow between 10 to 30 feet tall, although larger trees have been found. The branches typically spread wider than their height. Figs flourish in hot, dry climates, and the fruit requires a great deal of sun to ripen.
Botanically speaking, the fig is not actually a fruit. It is a syconium — a portion of the stem that enlarges into a sac that contains both flowers and seeds growing internally. Weird, right? Figs that we are accustomed to contain only female flowers that do not require pollination. However, one of the coolest stories of coevolution is that of the fig tree and the fig wasp. Fig trees coevolved to require a specific pollinator: the fig wasp.
Another interesting thing about figs is they belong to a group of plants that produce a milky sap called latex, like that found in rubber trees (Ficus elastica). Contact with the milky substance can cause an irritating skin dermatitis in some people who are sensitive to it. So be careful when pruning figs not to get the milky sap on your skin.
Figs are relatively easy to grow and care for. But the trees have a naturally shallow root system, so if there is one thing figs are finicky about, it is their need for water as they become established. This is especially important in the first year. Newly planted figs will need to be well-watered during the first months and especially during hot months with little rain through the first year. During extended droughts, you need to water young trees frequently.
You can do this by using a soaker hose or trickling garden hose at the base of the tree trunk for 20 to 30 minutes when there has been little rain. For older, established trees, you can set a sprinkler out for 30 to 45 minutes during summer when rain has been scarce and repeat every five to seven days until rains come.
Fig trees will drop fruit if they are drought stressed. The problem cannot be corrected once the fruit has suffered or begun to shrivel. You can help protect the roots and prevent moisture loss by applying a 3-to-4-inch layer of mulch, such as leaves, pine straw or pine bark, spread over the soil underneath the canopy of the tree.
Fall through early spring is a great time to purchase fig trees from local nurseries and plant them in the landscape. Make sure you have adequate space as fig trees can grow 15 feet or more in height and width. Figs need a minimum of six hours of full sun for proper production, and the fruit will be found on the new growth from spring and early summer.
Trees ordinarily do not produce a good crop of fruit until the third or fourth year after planting. You will generally see small green figs where the leaves join the stem, even on very young trees. But these fruit usually fail to ripen and just drop off. The variety LSU Purple is an exception, often producing small crops one to two years after planting.
You can trim the plants into a large bush shape with several trunks or into a tree shape with a single trunk. Prune no later than late February to early March to help maintain vigor, create the desired shape and control its size. Only moderate pruning is needed each year. When cutting back heavily to reduce the size of an older tree, fruit production the following summer will generally be reduced.
Regular spraying with pesticides is generally not necessary on fig trees. The only common problems are two fungus diseases that attack the foliage. Thread blight causes problems early in the season, and fig rust causes leaf spotting and scorch in late summer and fall. You can use spray applications of a copper-based fungicide, one in May and another in August, to keep these diseases from being too destructive. Spraying is not necessarily required, and the trees manage to survive these problems with no long-term health issues.
Occasional problems with white, fuzzy mealybugs can be controlled with light horticultural oil. Old trees may develop rot in the trunk and major branches. Just remove dead limbs as needed. Birds also love the fruit, so there’s that to contend with.
A few varieties of figs are available at local area nurseries. One of the most popular and reliable is Celeste, which produces small to medium-sized, violet-to-brown colored fruit with a light red pulp. These are resistant to fruit splitting and souring. Another good variety is Florentine, which produces large, green-yellow fruit that can appear twice a year.
The LSU AgCenter has released several great varieties. LSU Purple has become a favorite. It produces medium-sized, dark purple fruit with good resistance to diseases. It can produce two crops, a main crop in July followed by a later crop that sometimes lasts into December. LSU Gold produces a flavorful yellow fig with light red to pink pulp, O’Rourke, named after an LSU horticulturist, has medium-sized, light brown fruit; Champagne, has medium-sized, yellow fruit; and Tiger has large, light brown fruit with a dark brown stripe.
The fruit of a fig is actually composed of both flowers and seeds. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Figs change from green to brown, purple or red fruits as they ripen. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Green fig clusters form on new growth from spring and early summer. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter