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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica, Fruit ripening

The house that we purchased and moved into last spring came complete with a gorgeous, huge fig tree. It is currently full of gorgeous, huge figs, all rock-hard. It is planted against a south-facing wall, so it gets lots of reflected heat, but of course that is diminishing by the day.

So two questions:
1) Is there anything we can do to encourage at least a few figs to ripen before it is too late and
2) Is there anything worth doing with under-ripe figs?


I found information originally published in the summer 2009 issue of Edible Toronto about ways to increase the chances of figs ripening on the tree in cooler climates. In an article (no longer available online) entitled "Fig Fetishists in Ontario" author Steven Biggs says:
"The real secret to coaxing the fruit to ripen in our climate is to gain a few days of ripening time. Ferreira shows me a couple of trees over which he's draped clear plastic bags. This creates a warm microclimate around the tree, helping it to come out of dormancy more quickly. Once the current year's growth is underway and figs are forming, another trick is to break off the tip of the branch, leaving four leaves on the current year's growth.
What's Ferreira's big secret? Extra virgin olive oil. In the first week of September, he looks for figs that don't seem as if they will ripen before winter, and puts a drop of extra virgin olive oil on the eye. After six or seven days, he repeats the step. While this doesn't work on all of the fruit, he says, it helps some to ripen."

Most sources warn against using unripe figs. Not only would they not be tasty, but according to the Purdue University's New Crop Resource, "the latex of the unripe fruits and of any part of the tree may be severely irritating to the skin [...]It is an occupational hazard not only to fig harvesters and packers but also to workers in food industries, and to those who employ the latex to treat skin diseases."

Date 2019-04-10
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica, Tree roots

I have a fig tree cut down to just above the ground and want to know how to stop it from growing, i.e. putting up suckers. I plan to pave over that area and am afraid, because of its vigorous growth, that it will find a way up and out.


I recommend renting a stump grinder, or hiring a tree service to grind the stump and the larger roots. You can water the area well to soften the soil, and try digging up the remaining roots. You could try applying full-strength vinegar to kill any shoots, or you can wait and continue to cut them off as soon as they emerge. Over time, this should weaken any part of the tree that remains in the ground, and it will eventually die. You could also cover the area with black plastic once the stump and major roots have been removed. This should suppress any growth coming up from what is left of the roots. There are also chemical treatments which should only be used with extreme caution, and exactly according to directions on the product.

If you look at page 4 of this document on controlling invasive species from the Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk project, you will see the different approaches used to remove fig trees and their roots from a natural area (in Central California), including physical and chemical methods.

Date 2019-04-26
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica, Pruning trees

We recently moved into an old house with a huge fig tree in the back. We just missed this whole season's crop because I was waiting for them to turn brown but the birds got them all first. Then I saw some green figs for sale in the grocery store and it appears that some varieties don't turn brown. Is this true or did mine not ripen? Also, the tree is probably close to 30' and we'd like to add a screened-in porch under part of it. I'd really like to keep the tree and a good bit of fruit but I want it to grow more in the other direction. I've read that "hard pruning" is encouraged, but does that really mean cutting down a thirty foot tree? Do I need to do it in stages? What's the best size and shape and how do I get it there?


There are different types of figs, and some are green, some are brown, some are purple, as the images on the commercial site of Adriano's Fig Trees illustrate.

Figs should be picked when ripe, as they will not ripen off the tree. The California Rare Fruit Growers site has good general information on growing figs.

As for pruning, the best time to prune is late winter/early spring. To control height, open the center of the tree and remove any dead wood or drooping branches. I don't think radical pruning is the standard practice in maintaining a fig tree. University of Arizona article on growing figs describes pruning practices for several different varieties of fig.

Most pruning is best done when the tree is dormant, during the winter when it is leafless. Even during the spring and summer, however, you can start by removing all branches and stems that are obviously dead.

The rest depends on how your tree is growing (single trunk or multi-stemmed), what kind of results you would like (how large, small or what shape) and how long the tree has been unpruned. Our rule of thumb is to go by thirds. Remove about a third of the wood that you would eventually like to have gone. On multi-stemmed figs that are becoming large, we recommend selecting a few oversized stems and thinning those out to the ground, rather than "heading" all the branches to stubs. Let the tree rest for the summer and see what new growth appears. We recommend keeping fig trees small enough that all the fruit can be easily reached from the ground but in some areas of the south and southwest, folks treasure the deep shade of the larger figs. The final shape and size are up to you.

A 2006 article by Bunny Guinness in the British newspaper the Telegraph also describes how to prune an older fig tree. Excerpt:

"Figs really are a lazy man's fruit and, once they have had their formative training, mature trees or wall-trained shrubs do not need much attention apart from some replacement pruning. This involves removing one of the seven or so main limbs every three to four years in March or April, to stop the whole bush becoming too old and unproductive. Apart from this, providing you have the wall space, you can leave well alone. I have seen many such 'neglected' plants, and they still fruit well, although perhaps not as well as they might.

"On the other hand, if you want to maximize your crop (assuming it is against a wall), buy a copy of Clive Simms's Nutshell Guide to Growing Figs (Orchard House) to see how to fan train it against a wall--it is not hard. Once you have established an approximate fan of branches, you can start the ongoing pruning regime.

"Firstly, remove any weak branches in winter. Then, in April, remove the very tips of the main branches, above the developing figs. This will encourage side shoots, which are summer-pruned by cutting back in June to about four leaves. This technique can almost double the crop and bring it forward by a couple of weeks. Do not be tempted to cut back hard in winter, unless you don't mind forgoing a lot of your crop--this will cause lots of new growth but little fruit."

Date 2019-04-18
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica

Are fig trees known for being particularly aromatic?


I looked in a large number of our books on aromatic and fragrant plants, and none listed fig (or Ficus carica) in the index. Although the leaves may be mildly aromatic, it is not the usual reason people cultivate the plant, so apparently not much is written on the subject. I found a highly technical scientific article on a study comparing male and female fig trees and fragrance emission. To the best of my understanding, the composition of the volatile emissions and the quantity differed from male to female, and were subject to seasonal and diurnal changes (most emissions during the day, and in synchronization with the need to attract pollinators). What this suggests to me is that the scent of an individual tree may vary considerably.

The following is from general information on figs, from Purdue University's horticulture department. Excerpt:

Leaves: Fig leaves are used for fodder in India. They are plucked after the fruit harvest. Analyses show: moisture, 67.6%; protein, 4.3%; fat, 1.7%; crude fiber, 4.7%; ash, 5.3%; N-free extract, 16.4%; pentosans, 3.6%; carotene on a dry weight basis, 0.002%. Also present are bergaptene, stigmasterol, sitosterol, and tyrosine. In southern France, there is some use of fig leaves as a source of perfume material called "fig-leaf absolute", a dark-green to brownish-green, semi-solid mass or thick liquid of herbaceous-woody-mossy odor, employed in creating woodland scents.

The following information from a 2004 article by Tony Burfield entitled "a Brief Safety Guidance on Essential Oils" indicates that "fig-leaf absolute," as an essential oil, is phototoxic, in other words, will cause skin irritation when exposed to light. For this reason, it is banned from inclusion in perfumes by the International Fragrance Association.

Another site, BoJensen.net, includes "A small guide to Nature's fragrances," describing various essential oils.Excerpt:

"Fig leaves have a characteristic sweet-green fragrance, perceptible when one stands close to the sun-warm trees or by handling the leaves. They have been extracted on a limited scale for perfumery use in Grasse in southern France. According to Arctander, fig leaf absolute is a dark green to brownish green, semi-solid mass or viscous liquid of a delicately sweet-green, herbaceous and somewhat woody odour with a mossy undertone.

"Roman Kaiser, among 200 identified constituents of fig leaf absolute, found a number of olfactorily relevant N-containing trace constituents, one of them 2-isobutyl-4-methylpyridine, characterized by an attractive tobacco-like, green, herbaceous odor. Major odorants were linalool, benzyl acetate, methyl salicylate, beta-ionone and (Z)-3-hexenyl benzoate [137].

"Buttery et al. identified germacrene D as a major volatile component in fig leaves. Other major volatiles were beta-cyclocitral, (Z)-3-hexenol and (Z)-3-hexenyl acetate [129]."

Ultimately, it seems to me that if you want to plant a fig tree with fragrant leaves, you will have to do a sniff-test of your own. In my experience, all fruit--fresh and dried--from the tree is aromatic, regardless of variety, but you may detect more subtle differences. Buy different types of fresh and dried figs at the market, and visit gardens where figs are growing. I'm afraid that's the best I can come up with.

Date 2019-04-18
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica, Pruning trees, Espaliers

I purchased a fig tree and my property has very limited space. There is an ideal strip of land by the south side of the wall that gets plenty of sun. I read that fig trees should be planted near a south facing wall, but my only concern is how close can it be to the side of the house. The strip of land is only about 2 feet wide and I also read that fig roots are shallow and spread beyond the canopy. I'm worried that the root system would cause damage to the foundation/basement.


The roots of a fig tree may be shallow, but they may spread out as much as 50 feet, and if the soil conditions are right (soft, permeable), roots may go as much as 20 feet deep. I think planting so close to the house is not ideal, unless you were to have a dwarf variety of fig in a container (such as Petite Negri or Negronne). If there are any cracks in your foundation, then tree roots may be a concern. Tree roots do not usually penetrate a solid wall, although as they grow and expand, they can exert pressure on surfaces. The other concern with planting that close is that you will find you frequently need to prune branches away from the house. There is a tradition of growing fig trees as espalier forms (trained to grow flat, on one plane), but to do this you need to restrict the tree's roots in a container. Below are links to information on how to do espalier:

Mississippi Cooperative Extension

Royal Horticultural Society

The following links have excellent general information about growing fig trees:

Purdue University Extension

California Rare Fruit Growers

Here is information from Reads Nursery, a British fruit specialist. Excerpt:

Allow 8' - 15' horizontally and 6' - 10' in height per plant. Root restriction is required. Construct a box of 2' square paving slabs 4' x 2' against a wall or side of greenhouse, leaving 3 inches showing above ground. Put 9 inches of rammed brick rubble in the bottom and fill up with good soil such as John Innes No 3.[*This is a British product--you can use compost instead.] When planting loosen root ball carefully around the outside and plant 1-2"deeper than before. Water in well. Pruning. Treat as for Figs in Pots but, on a wall, the plant should be fan trained on horizontal wires 12 inches apart.

Date 2018-10-31
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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Ficus carica, Harvesting time

It's November, and my fig tree still has hundreds of hard green figs. Will they be the ones to ripen next spring?


There ought to be a simple answer to your worthwhile question, but according to Ben Pike's The Fruit Tree Handbook (Green Books, 2011), "It is very easy to become confused by the fruiting cycle of figs, because they carry different generations of fruit on the tree all at the same time. In the British climate [similar to Pacific Northwest], once the ripe fruits have been picked, there will be two types of fruit left on the tree. The larger ones, from about marble size upwards, are fruits produced this season that will not ripen properly. The fruits that will ripen next year are now the size of a pea or even smaller. They can be seen mostly on the final 20-30 cm. (8-12") of shoots that have grown this year. The larger fruits are likely to split or fall off during the winter. Removing all the fruits larger than a pea in November allows the tree to put its energy into developing small fruits ready for next season. In other words, the fruits need to develop over two seasons in our climate. It is the fruits that would normally develop and ripen over one season in a warmer climate that are removed in order to help the embryonic fruits develop by the following year."

There is similar information in Grow Figs Where You Think You Can't by Steven Biggs (No Guff Press, 2012). Here is a section of the book which is available online.
"It will break your heart, but there will be figs that don't ripen. As you tuck in your trees for the winter, remove any remaining figs that are bigger than the size of a pea."

You will sometimes see references to the breba crop and the main crop. Breba is an alteration of Old Spanish bebra, meaning twice-bearing, from Latin bifera. In terms of your fig, the breba crop is the first crop which ripens on last season's wood (the ones that are tiny right now). Steven Biggs says that the breba crop ripens as early as July in his climate (Ontario), and the main crop (figs which form on new growth) ripens in September or October, or sometimes not at all, depending on the weather. While some fig aficionados say the breba crop is inferior, he cherishes it because it may be the only one to ripen in a short-summer climate.

Not all varieties of fig produce a prolific breba crop; some produce only the main crop. The web page of California Rare Fruit Growers discusses this in detail.

Date 2019-04-10
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