(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 25, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"The juice of a ripe fig is an invitation for insects, birds and even more... the owner!" exclaims a Dave's Garden member from Greece. Figs have always been an important food resource for wildlife and were probably among the very first plant species to be propagated in human agriculture. Ray Givan, of The North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX), reports that archaeologist Daniel Zohary and others think figs were one of the first domesticated fruits, as far back as 4000 BC.
A Prominent Part of Human Culture
Figs were revered by the Romans and Greeks, and by many certain religions. Figs are mentioned in the Promised Land list of foods in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8) and are also one of the two sacred trees of Islam.
Today, figs are a valued commodity in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported the world's production of figs in 2007 at over one million tonnes, the top three producers being Turkey (270,830 tonnes), Egypt (170,000 tonnes), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (88,000 tonnes). FAO estimated fig production in the US at 38,500 tonnes.
About Fig Trees
Fig trees are a deciduous species with unique deeply lobed, finger-like leaves. Figs are called Higo in Spanish and Figo in Italian. The common fig, Ficus carica, is part of an extremely large genus in the Moraceae family. Fig trees are native to Asia and are distributed throughout the Mediterranean and in areas with temperate seasons; they prefer a well drained site with full sun. F. carica is easily propagated or rooted by cuttings or air layering and can live to over 100 years. Handling and exposure to the tree's milky latex can cause allergic or skin irritations in susceptible people.
The common fig tree self-pollinates. Unlike many other fruit trees, fig trees do not show visible blossoms before fruiting. The hundreds of small flowers are contained within green (olive-sized) peduncles along the interior of the syconium, which later develop into what are called drupelets. Marie Simmons explains fig botany and cultivation in her book, Fig Heaven. She says, "When we cut into a ripe fig, these minute flowers are what we call the fig's pulp or soft center."
There are green, yellow and dark colored figs that include 4 distinct types: Caprifig, Smyrna, San Pedro and approximately 481 cultivars (varieties) of common fig, Ficus carica, including the well-known 'Black Mission', 'Brown Turkey', and 'Calimyrna'. Other cultivars include 'Chicago Hardy'(hardy USDA zones 6a-8b), 'Desert King' (Charlie), 'Excel', 'Flanders', 'Italian Honey' (Lattarula),'Kadota', 'Osborn's Prolific' (Neveralla), 'Nordland', 'Panachee' (Striped Tiger), 'Petite Negra', 'Peters Honey', 'Texas Blue Giant', and 'Violette du Bordeaux'.
Sam Benowitz of Raintree Nursery stocks a wide selection of F. carica. He favors the 'Desert King' cultivar, "because it always overwinters with a pea size crop of figs that ripen in the Pacific Northwest in August, and they are delicious."
Once established, trees can be identified by their aerial roots or their overall form, leaves, trunk color or distinctive fruits.
Growing F. carica
Dave's Garden member 'dpmichael' from Rethymno, Crete
(Greece) grows several fig trees. Given as a present from his late father-in-law, the tree shown (photo) is five years old and was started as a cutting from a fig tree in Athens, famous for its big white sweet figs. "We thank and mention him for looking after us with love, every time we taste the figs," says dpmichael. His most productive tree, this Ficus lived in a container for its first few years, then was transplanted directly in the ground. He finds his trees are most productive by their 7th or 8th year.
He has several other fig trees growing in containers: a one-year-old cutting, which his friend called an "American" variety, and a two-year-old cutting that he says, "seems to be spending its life in the metal container waiting its turn to be planted."
Figs should be harvested when fully ripe, usually at the end of the summer and early fall. The fruit is most often sold dried; fresh figs are usually only available in season.
dpmichael says, "Picking figs is like picking cherries one-by-one. They can't be beat for flavor when eaten as a snack right off the tree or for use in cooking." He tests for ripe figs by examining their color and the oozing of its natural juices. He says, "A beginner can check for ripeness by gently squeezing them."
The ripe fig shown in the photo against the stones next to the ampelopsis, "is excellent from all aspects - sweet, uncontaminated by insect larvae," states dpmichael, who ate the fig two minutes after he took the photo and said, "It was superb!"
Figs are considered a functional food; they have health benefits beyond the nutrition they offer. Figs contain phenols, which are antioxidants that may help with weight loss and help to protect against cancer and heart disease. Of all the common fruits, figs are the highest in overall mineral content and are an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Fruit is an important part of a healthy diet. MyPyramid.gov is a good place to find personalized health information and recommended servings sizes for all food groups based on height, weight and activity levels. Recommended quantities for daily fruit consumption varies for each individual. In general, a goal for fruit intake is to try to eat 1 ½ - 2 cups of fruit per day (1 cup for children 2-5 years old).
A 40 gram (1/4 cup) serving of dried figs provide: 3.82g dietary fiber (15% DV), 100 kcal energy, 66.78 mg calcium (7% DV), .81 mg iron(4% DV), 271.89 mg of potassium (8% DV), and 28.62 mg of magnesium (7% DV).
Daily Value (DV) is a percentage (based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet) for you to use as a frame of reference to help you tell if a serving of food is high or low in a nutrient. It is used on Food Nutrition Facts Labels.
For comparison purposes, the table below compares dried Figs, Apples and Oranges using 1 ½ cups (or equivalent) of fresh fruit.
Uncommon Nutrition from the Common Fig
mg= milligrams, g=grams------------------Minerals---------------- 1 ½ cup fresh fruit or equivalent Total dietary FIBER- gKcal (energy)
Calcium (Ca)- mg
Iron (Fe)-mg Potassium (K)-mg
¾ cup (111.75 g) 10.95 278.25 180.75 2.26 759.75 75.75 Fresh Apple
w/skin One large, 1 ½ cup sliced (140g) 3.33 73.20 8.99 0.17 150.27 6.42 Florida Orange One medium size, 2 5/8 inches(141 g) 3.4 65 61 0.13 238 14Table by Diana Wind - USDA National Nutrition Database for Standard Reference *Dried figs were used since they are available year-round.
Figs are a nutritious snack right off the tree and delicious when used in prepared foods. Fresh figs make excellent presentations as simple, yet elegant, desserts or hors d'oeuvres.
Both fresh and dried figs can be used as nutritious snacks and in foods and desserts, such as fig tarts, fig bars, and an Italian favorite: fig cuccidati cookies, a Sicilian cookie stuffed with a filling made from figs and chocolate.
Figs can be grilled or slightly warmed and stuffed with a soft cheese such as mascarpone, ricotta, farmer's or extra creamy gorgonzola dolce. Top it off by serving the figs with a drizzle of honey or a thick and sweet balsamic vinegar reduction and a garnish of honey roasted walnuts.
Figs are delicious in homemade jam and in savory dishes such as fresh fig-stuffed pork loin with fennel and onions, a recipe that can be found in the book Fig Heaven. Fig leaves are edible; they can be used to wrap around foods and cooked similar to grape leaves.
Protecting Fig Trees for the Winter
My great grandfather and great grandmother (Angelo Salottolo and his wife Giuseppina) came to America from Forli, Emilia-Romagna Italy. Mama recalls visiting them in their Bronx, New York home. She remembers a fig tree growing in their backyard garden, up against a fence in front of an apartment building. She is not sure if they brought fig tree cuttings with them to America, as some Italian immigrants did, but she can remember her nonno (Italian grandfather) wrapping it in burlap before every winter.
Gardeners take great pride in their personal techniques to guard and protect their precious family fig trees during the winter months. There are many different methods of protecting fig trees during the winter. Wrapping the tree with different types of materials as a protective covering seems to be the most common. Internet stories include everything from tarp and bungee cords to tying corn stalks, newspaper and chicken wire stuffed with leaves; carpet, carpet padding, table cloths, tar paper, and actually digging up the tree and laying it on the ground and covering it with a layer of soil.
Sante Vittorio from Sulmona, Abruzzo--located at the foot of the Maiella massif in Italy--says, "Where we lived was on flat ground. We grew everything. Figs, they don't die out there. I was 23 years old when I came over here in this country. I grow one white fig, one brown and one black. I used to wrap my trees when I was younger with a piece of rug and black plastic. I don't wrap them now, I'm old, I let them die back - the shoots grow back from the bottom. I used to get so much figs every year, I would give to everybody. I give my neighbor and she give to her friends. I had so much. I even used to bring to the church, to the priest."
Sam at Raintree Nursery says, "A good thing about figs is that, if they get below 10ºF, they die back to the ground but the roots are usually fine and the tree quickly grows back. We grow the plants as bushes with lots of branches coming out near the ground. Then we mulch a couple of feet in the late fall around the base of the plant. That way, even if it dies back, we have the starts of many branches protected and it quickly re-grows."
A southern, warm and sunny exposure in a somewhat protected spot will help to ensure your fig tree survives the winter. Potted trees can be over wintered and kept in a basement or garage; they should only be watered a few times during dormancy.
The little 1-year-old, 3-foot brown fig tree in the photo dropped all of its leaves in the fall as expected, and is now a bare stick with a growing bud on the top and a foot of dried leaves around the base... time will tell if this tree survives its first winter.
Further Reading: Related Links: Introduction to Ornamental Figs in Cultivation by Geoff Stein
- California Fresh Fig Growers Association, Information and Recipes
- Elementary School Age Kids Fun, About FIGS ~ Nutrition, Activities and Recipe
- California Figs, About figs, recipes, facts
Photo credits: All photos used with permission and ©copyright 2009 by the respective parties. All rights reserved. Thumbnail and Fig tree photos and sliced fig on rocks ©'dpmichael'. Striped Tiger figs ©Kelley MacDonald. Close-up of fig leaves, winter fig bare stick and bulk fresh figs ©Wind.
Special thanks to: Sam Benowitz, Joan Geary, Sante Vittorio, Junetta Mehl, Harry Wind, Dr. Fitzgerald, 'dpmichael', 'palmbob' and 'kell'.
  Givan RU, The NAFEX FIG Page- History of Fig Growing: North american Fruit Explorers. Accessed Jan. 3, 2009.
 Wikipedia, Ficus. Accessed Oct. 24, 2008.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), FAOSTAT, Figs Production, 2007. Accessed Jan. 28, 2009.
 ADA's Public Relations Team, American Dietetic Association, Fill up on Figs, Oct.24, 2008. Available at: http//www.eatright.org. Accessed Jan. 28, 2009.
 Centers for Disease,Control and Prevention (CDC) Fruit and Vegetable Benefits. based on age, sex and less than 30 min. of daily physical activity with a 1,200 calorie per day diet - recommended fruit intake: Age 5 male or female 1cup(c) fruit; age 20 male or female 2c; age 40 male 2c, female 2.5 c; age 60 male 2c, female 1.5c; age 80 male 2c, female 1.5c. Accessed Feb.10, 2009.
 eCRF current as of Jan.29, 2009, Title 21: Food and Drugs, 101.12 Reference amounts customarily consumed per eating occasion. Accessed Feb. 1,2009