Known as The tree of life by the ancient Egyptians and much enjoyed by Cleopatra and Ulysses, the fig is a wonderful and delicious species.
There are several fact sheets on figs (Ficus carica) available from Departments of Agriculture around Australia and many entries in books on fruit growing. This sheet merely summarises information we have had as personal communication from various sources and is not, to our knowledge, available elsewhere. As much of this information has been gathered from other people, no responsibility is taken for its accuracy.
Please use the links below to jump to specific information:
- General information
- Growing figs
- Propagating figs - its easy
- Pruning figs
- The world's best fig recipe!
If you have a fig which never produces a crop it may be a Capri, a San Pedro or Smyrna fig without a nearby pollinator (see 'caprification') or a poorly adapted Common Fig. Whilst Smyrna used to be the main drying variety grown in South Australia, its management is somewhat tricky and we have not seen one for sale in any nursery. One presumes that there are still a lot of old Smyrnas and their pollinators (Capri) on old fruit blocks in the Riverland in South Australia.
Despite the fact that figs have been in cultivation for over 3000 years they remain somewhat of a mystery crop. They are extraordinary producers of high energy food.
- Glace figs: Virtually all figs can be successfully glaced
- Dried figs: Varieties favoured for drying are generally those that have high levels of sugar and usually make good jam too
- Dessert or fresh-eating figs: Those with an agreeable flavour and texture sometimes good for drying too
At the time of writing we have a collection of all varieties listed below and stock of some of them for sale in our nursery at affordable prices as well as making budwood available in winter for others to strike. We also sell some of the more popular varieties at the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market.
Unless otherwise noted the figs below are self fertile:
- Adam: a large San Pedro type tree usually producing a useful Breba crop around Christmas time in SA and a major crop (which requires cross pollination with a Capri fig) in Feb. Skin is red to purple and pulp champagne to pink coloured
- White Adriatic: an early fig suited to cooler areas like the Adelaide Hills, one crop which ripens February, medium to large fruit, brownish-green skin and pink flesh, excellent fresh and very good for jam. A spreading tree
- Deanna: a large fig suited to the fresh market, green to golden skin with pink pulp, very popular in the USA
- Archipal: a large greenish-yellow fig with a very thin, edible skin and honey-coloured flesh. Early to mid season. One of our best and most reliable bearers at The Food Forest, but splits catastrophically in strong summer rains
- Flanders: a shy bearer, but good quality green skinned fruit with pink flesh
- Black Genoa (San Piero): a medium sized, pear-shaped fruit, purplish skin and red flesh, good for fresh eating but not suitable for drying. Vigorous tree, ripens Dec-Feb
- White Genoa: mid season and good in cool areas with large greenish-yellow fruit with amber flesh, good fresh eating variety and favoured for jam making. Light crop in Dec and more in Feb-Mar, unique flavour
- Preston: seems to have trouble maturing Dec-April, somewhat hairy, large green-brown fruit, white flesh, vigorous grower, high quality fruit resistant to splitting
- Brown Turkey: medium sized, late season (March), brownish striped fruit with pinkish flesh. Excellent for jam. Second crop is main crop. Hardy tree
- Spanish Dessert: late maturing, spectacular dark purple skin and dark red flesh. It has an initially distressing habit of dropping large numbers of figlets on the ground, to the point that you think the tree will lose its whole crop, but as the tree settles down it bears good crops. It has rather luxurious dark green leaves making it a lovely landscape feature
- Yellow Ischi: Small, possibly useable for jam
- Excel: small, early season, light yellow skin, amber flesh, limited value for commercial market because of yields but good flavour for fresh eating
- Celeste: commercial variety in USA, violet skin, pink coloured, firm flesh, fairly cold-hardy. Very reliable cropper at The Food Forest
- Persian Prolific: strong grower, mid season fruit, light purple skin and honey coloured flesh
- Cape White: early maturing, ripens Jan, medium-sized fruit, green skin, cream coloured flesh. Great for jam, compact tree
- Smyrna: golden yellow skin and red pulp characterise this special drying, glazing, jam-making fig. It requires cross pollination (caprification) with the Capri fig
- Sugar Fig: is it another name for White Adriatic, the White Genoa or a separate variety? There is much confusion and misnaming of figs. Our Sugar fig is great for jam and drying and is a medium-sized, sweet, green-skinned variety obtained from a local nursery!
An Australian collector with an extensive collection of figs and a remarkable data-base on figs was Tony Stevens.
Here is a list of his varieties.
The fig is a deciduous, sub-tropical tree producing its best fruit in hot, fairly dry areas with extra water provided to the root system. The Riverland in South Australia provides an ideal climate. Too high summer temperatures can result in pulpless fruit and cool, damp conditions during ripening give rise to splitting and fungal attack. It doesnt like cold but can survive temperatures of minus 10 degrees C when dormant. Late frosts (after the new spring shoots have emerged) hurt it badly.
Figs are not nearly as tough as many people would have you believe, so kid-glove treatment is in order for the first year in the ground particularly but even beyond that time they need a steady supply of water and fertilizer to be productive. Mulching around the trees helps to keep the shallow root system cool and moist.
- It is tolerant of alkaline soils of many textures but will not put up with wet feet or very acid soils (under pH 6). It is somewhat forgiving with respect to salinity accepting water of up to 1000 ppm salts
- The fig dislikes wind but loves creekside locations and high fertility sites (and is adept at cracking its way into underground sewer pipe systems)
- Too much Nitrogen can cause excess leaf production and slower ripening of fruit
- Its spreading root system is quite shallow and competitive, giving nearby trees a fairly hard time. It doesnt appreciate having its roots torn up by cultivation
- Trees are generally planted about 4.5m apart in rows 6m apart
- Inter-row cultivation should be avoided where possible to prevent damage to the shallow root system (which also causes suckering)
- Prune the tree up on a single trunk of at least 75cm and dont allow sucker growth or youll end up with an unpickable thicket. Generally annual pruning for form is all that is required. Bear in mind that the fruit is mainly borne new wood. The Californians have some new-generation orchards which look almost like vineyards with the trees trained to just a couple of metres in height in a hedgerow. This helps with picking and with netting the trees
- Fig Leaf Mosaic is a common disease in figs and reduces vigour but does not lead to the death of trees
- On current prices you would not grow rich growing figs for the dried market and if you decided to chase the fresh market your bird netting arrangements would need to be of a high standard. Birds are enormous fig-lovers. We net whole hedgerows of figs rather than netting individual trees
- Figs often produce two crops annually; the early picking, often in about Dec, is known as the Breba crop (these are frequently big fruit) and the later picking is the Higos or main crop
- Traditionally figs for drying were allowed to drop on the ground to ensure absolute ripeness and maximum sugar. We tend to pick when the fig softens and droops. Judging ripeness in the Common fig is a bit of an art. The milky sap which oozes from the stem of unripe or not-quite-ripe figs when picked can be irritating to the skin, so you may want to wear cotton gloves.
- Drying is an efficient way of storing these very perishable fruit but you lose about 40% of the Vitamin C and B group by so doing. In his great book The complete book of growing fruit in Australia Dr Louis Glowinski notes that, like dates, dried figs have so much sugar in them that diabetics are warned not to eat them.
Propagating figs - it's easy
In the winter, when the fig trees have lost their leaves, take cuttings about 25cm long from the trees you want to multiply. This can be conveniently done when you are pruning trees. Make sure you label the bundle of cuttings from each variety.
To make sure your cuttings have their requirement for winter cold satisfied it is not a bad idea to put them in the fridge for 2 or 3 weeks (this doesn't seem completely necessary but helps set the wood's biological clock). This is also a way of temporary storage while you get propagation materials organised. To do this wrap the bundle of cuttings in damp newspaper and then put in a plastic bag in the fridge. Don't forget that it is there!
Striking the cuttings should be done in coarse sand or similar - plasterers sand or the commercially available propagation mixes work well - and the cuttings should be planted at least 2 or 3 buds deep (you only need a couple of buds above ground). Ensure that the cuttings are planted the right way up! You can do this in pots, bags or in the ground itself but I prefer to do it in containers so you can keep them all in one spot in the nursery for watering etc.
Before planting the bud sticks are dipped in one of the hormone powders or liquids that encourage root development (with indolebutyric acid - available through nurseries) and planted in the propagation material. Keep moist but not wet in a shady place until leaf shoots emerge and as the plant develops full leaves feed regularly with a fairly dilute liquid fertiizer. When it has a lot of leaves (maybe after a month or 2) carefully transplant (avoiding root damage) into a bigger container with potting mix. Keep in a shady spot for a week or 2 to avoid transplant shock. Grow on and plant the tree in the field the next winter.
Bud-wood for propagation by striking is collected in winter. The figs would be removed to prevent the wood being exhausted
Remember to plant cuttings the right way up!
Caprification is essential for the production of figs of some varieties.
The fig is a peculiar fruit which is in fact a pretty much vegatative receptacle with thousands of tiny flowers inside it, each of which grows into a tiny fruit (but they are very small and all assembled together so we don't notice their separateness).
Whilst most fig varities are self fertile the San Pedro or Smyrna figs need to be pollinated by a Capri type fig. This is done by a tiny wasp which lays its eggs in the Capri fig and, when moving around inside the fig, ends up covered in its pollen. When the wasp flies around the orchard checking out other figs for laying sites it goes into other types of fig but finds them unsuitable for her purposes and leaves... but not before she has spread pollen from the Capri fig onto the female parts of the Smyrna or San Pedro type, so pollinating it.
Figure 1: Diagram of a fig fruit (Univ. of California, Division of Agricultural Science, Leaflet21051. 1978)
The wasp covered in Capri pollen fertilizes the Smyrna type fig
Fig wasp pupae
The pupae of the fig wasp inside the Capri fig. The male wasp emerges first, fertilises the female wasp through the pupa case and then cuts a hole in the pupa case for the young (pre-fertilized) female wasp to emerge from
Acknowledgement is made for images drawn from the Fruit Gardener vol 23 6 1991
Unlike common figs the caprifig produces three crops of synconia. These are known by their Italian terms: profichi, mammoni and mamme.
- Profichi synconia form on buds just above the scars of fallen leaves on the previous season's wood (like the breba crop). They develop from October through to December. At this time new shoots and leaves are forming on the tree.The synconia develop rapidly, and within three weeks the female flowers are ready for fertilisation. The male flowers do not produce pollen until early December. This pollen fertilises the edible fig varieties
- Mammoni form on the new growth each year (like the main edible crop). Mammoni start to develop in early December when the profichi crop is almost over, and continue to grow through until late March - early April. Mammoni caprifigs do not shed pollen
- Mamme start to develop in May, when the mammoni crop is almost over and the tree has started to become dormant. They form near the tips of the branch. They stay on the tree during winter, and develop fully in September when the female flowers of the profichi crop are receptive. The male flowers do not shed pollen
The main varieties used to pollinate Smyrna and San Pedro figs in California are Roeding, Samson and Stanford. It is best that the correct variety of caprifig is chosen to ensure that pollen from the profichi crop is available at the right time. At this stage The Food Forest has only one variety, known as Caprifig.
Finer details about caprification
The process of caprification is complex. It involves the presence of both the fig wasp and the correct stage of fig on the caprifig tree.
Commercial Smyrna-type figs are pollinated in early summer with pollen from the profichi caprifig. If the female flowers are receptive, the wasp will also pollinate the female flowers of the mammoni caprifig at this time. The flowers will then form seeds, completing the reproductive cycle of both the caprifig and commercial trees. The female wasp lays eggs in all the female flowers, pollinating at the same time. The larvae hatch and develop in flowers with short styles. The long-styled flowers develop seeds.
Generally one caprifig tree is needed for every 15 to 20 Smyrna trees. Planting the caprifig trees within the block is not recommended, as pollination is not even: the trees closest to the caprifigs can be over-fertilised and split, and more distant trees may not be pollinated. Caprifig trees should be planted in a separate block. The profichi caprifigs (with wasps) are picked and placed in wire baskets around the Profichi caprifigs on the previous season's wood when the first wasps start to emerge. Each basket needs to contain six or seven figs. The profichi need to be replaced every three days for about three weeks, as not all the synconia of the Smyrna figs are receptive at the same time. It is useful to have more than one variety of caprifig so that the pollination period is extended.
Pruning regime (years 1- 4)
Pruning regime (years 1- 4)
Pruning the Capri fig tree
The Worlds best fig recipe!
This is the most amazing and delicious way of keeping figs Ive come across and was collected by my grandfather Tom Bowen who worked with dried fruit growers in the Riverland when figs were a significant crop up there.
Grandfather Bowens Figs
- 6 lbs figs, 4lbs sugar, 2ozs ginger (half that will do),
6 wineglasses vinegar,
- 1 wineglass water
- Boil figs in the above ingredients until clear (about 2 hours)
- Drain dry and press-roll in castor sugar
- Bake in hot oven for 5 minutes and allow to cool
- Store in an airtight container
Feedback: If you have any experiences or further useful information about fig varieties, recipes, cultivation etc please let me know so we can continue to improve this fact sheet for everyones benefit.