The Secret Life of Figs

 Ficus carica 'Brown Turkey'

I’m rather passionate about figs and their history. I cannot just pull a fig part, their opulence seems to demand far more respect and to be sliced in half or quarters with a fruit knife, just like opening a beautifully wrapped gift to reveal the surprise inside. They are also wonderful when delicately baked until they gently ooze a sticky syrup, to be eaten on a cold day as a warm treat with cheese.

Figs are a species within the Mulberry family and were native to the Middle East and Western Asia, it is said that they originated in Persia. An illustrious plant steeped in history and one of the first plants cultivated by humans; mentioned in the Bible, reportedly Cleopatra’s favourite fruit, and sacred to the ancient Greeks, the fruits were also a common source of food for the Romans. Everything about the plant seems to hint at its ancient mysterious past.

A deciduous old-world tree or large shrub, the majestic fig has inverted flowers concealed from sight in the syconium, and blooming only within the hidden complex inflorescence. The fruits are pollinated generally by the fig wasp which enters through the narrow neck to reach the stamens inside.

Also seen as an essential asset to ecosystems in many parts of the world for their year round production of fruit providing food for a wide variety of animals. It is in modern times sought after widely, both as an ornamental and fruit bearing plant.

I used to look at a fig and think it impossible to grow in the UK, it seems too exotic and surely requiring a great deal of warmth and light. The fig tree does indeed need warmth and shelter to give a good crop but Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’ which has gained the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, actually does very well in the UK climate, particularly in southern England as the plant is fully hardy and can be successfully grown outdoors, however we recommend that it is protected from severe weather with thick fleece, hessian or similar if grown outdoors. Growing under glass will also help ensure that a good crop of edible fruit is borne.

The cultivar ‘Brown Turkey’ has all female flowers that don’t require a wasp for pollination to fruit, making it perfect for conservatories, greenhouses, balconies and containers as well as in the ground.

Fruits are 3-5cm in size with a sweet, dark flesh and a green skin that ripens to a brown or purple colour. It has two potential crops each year; the first is in spring on the previous year’s growth and the second is in late summer/autumn on the current year’s growth. The second crop being far more superior to the first. Figs must be harvested according to nature’s clock and allowed to fully ripen on the tree, as picking them too early results in them never ripening.

It looks lovely fan trained against a warm south-facing wall or in a container, fig trees in containers should be re-potted every two years. Surprisingly hardy, container grown figs can be planted up at any time of year, however spring is the ideal season as they then have time to become established before winter. Their roots do need some protection from the nip of frost and cold weather, again where hessian or fleece comes in handy if outdoors.

Growing to 10m tall with a smooth bark and fragrant, deeply lobed leaves. The fig plant requires just minimal winter pruning to remove damaged/displaced branches to keep the framework open. In summer, new shoots can be pinched back to five or six leaves to encourage a larger crop of fruit.

Regular watering is needed until established, but thereafter it becomes quite drought tolerant. Although if it gets too thirsty it will drop its fruit early in protest.

One cup of figs has the same amount of calcium as half a cup of milk, making the common fig not just a mysterious symbol of abundance, fertility and sweetness, it is also nutritious, adaptive and very versatile. Well deserving of a spot in any UK garden or greenhouse.

We have been trialling some other varieties of fig with interesting foliage, including ‘Ice Crystal’, ‘Kadota’ and ‘Panache’ which we may introduce at a later date.

 

If you would like to book figs for 2016 then now is a great time to get your order in… You can find Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’ on our website or our current 2016 Growing Innovations Catalogue. There may also be some available on the current surplus list.