Figs

Figs are a tasty treat that ripen in late summer and fall. By selecting the correct proper cultivar, they will grow successfully in Southside.

I enjoy yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfast most mornings and a favorite fruit is a ripe juicy fig, Ficus carica. 

If you select the right cultivar, you can grow figs in Southside. Figs are unique in the way they grow and fruit.  

As with most fruits, site selection is important. Figs grow best in full sun. 

According to University of Tennessee Extension Office, the south side of a building is best. This way the plant gets extra heat from the building and some protection from prevailing winds. Make sure to plant at least 3 feet away from the building. Figs do get large. Apparently, soil type is not much of an issue, but good drainage is required. Fig roots go deep, so avoid planting near drainage pipes or septic systems.

The best cultivars for this area are Brown Turkey, the most common, which produces medium-to-large figs. Celeste produces small, sweet purplish fruits. Hardy Chicago is, as the name implies, the most cold hardy and produces purple, medium sized fruit. 

These are all types of common figs. Per Ohio State Extension, “Figs can be one of three types: Common, San Pedro or Smyrna. Fig cultivars of the common type, such as Brown Turkey and Hardy Chicago, do not require pollination to produce fruits. They produce fruits through parthenocarpy, which is a process where plants set fruits from unfertilized ovules. They do not contain seeds, but rather partially developed ovules. Fig cultivars of the San Pedro and Smyrna types” require a wasp for pollination and the wasp would not survive winters in this area.

I want to back up on that word parthenocarpy. The phenomenon is as strange as the word sounds. We all know about the birds and the bees that are required for pollination of angiosperms, flowering plants.  But vegetative parthenocarpy is defined as the condition in which fruits are developed without the formation of seeds. Common figs as well as bananas and pineapples are all parthenocarpic plants. You won’t see flowers on a fig plant. The beauty of this is, unlike most fruits, no cross pollination is needed.  Therefore, only one fig plant is necessary to bear fruit.

Figs mature late summer into fall. They need to ripen on the plant, if picked prematurely, just like strawberries, they will not ripen off the plant. Pick when the fruits change to brown/purple and feel soft.  It is advised to wear gloves while picking because an oozy sap exudes from the stem that may be irritating to the skin.

Do not despair if we have a frost. This will not kill the fruits, but a hard frost, one down to 27 degrees, will.  Fresh figs will only last a few days. Drying is an option as well as canning and freezing. Reference the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning for safe canning methods.  

Just popping the figs into a freezer bag is acceptable for freezing. But fig preserves are wonderful.  It reminds me of the delightful Fannie Flagg book, “The Whole Town is Talking,” which has a character who makes fig preserves and no one passes by her house without a jar. On a visit to the town by Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, Mamie remembers this lady because she had given her a jar of her fig preserves.  My good friend Nancy gave us a bunch of figs last year and we did make Fig Newtons. It was a three-step process, but they turned out to be delicious.

Do figs need winter protection? If you select one or two of the listed cultivars, I’d say no. If we have a really, really cold snap, there is a chance that the plant may die back. This does not mean it is dead, just dormant.  

Figs grow on new growth, so this will not impact next year’s fruit production. If you want to be safe and wrap the plant, use something breathable like burlap and wrap around the plant, but leave the top bare.  Sure, you can grow figs in pots and bring them into a garage or other unheated outbuilding during the winter.  But figs need a chilling period to produce fruit so why bother will all that effort.  

Figs are rich in important nutrients like Vitamin B, C, phosphorus, potassium and minerals like calcium and magnesium which are essential for boosting and rejuvenating the skin’s health. The high omega 3 fatty acids in figs keep the skin well moisturized and conditioned from within.  Just don’t eat too many at one time.

When we left home for our Panama City Beach trip, our figs were not yet ripe. I keep looking at the weather, hoping that we won’t have a hard frost before we get back home. I look forward to enjoying my yogurt with a juicy fig. I hope the birds don’t beat me to them!   

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The VCE Halifax Extension Office is now open. Masks and social distancing are required. If the door is locked, knock.  If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The help desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Our COVID-19 transmission rate is in the red, so consider getting vaccinated and give figs a try.

Cornell is a Southside Master Gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension.