Plant of the Month

plant of the month

A Fruit of Millennial Proportions

Each summer there are numerous seasonal fruits that I look forward to sampling.  For the home gardener, fruits – or at least those commodities such as apples and peaches that we consider as fruits – are more challenging to grow due to the bevy of insects and disease issues and the consequential use of ‘chemical warfare’.  Fortunately, there are several fruits that can be grown with relative ease without the weekly downing of a gas mask.  One such fruit has been in cultivation for at least 11,000 years – the Common Fig!
Botanically known as Ficus carica, figs are a member of the Moraceae or Mulberry Family.  It was officially described by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1758) in 1753 when he published Species Plantarum.  The genus name Ficus originates from the Latin for fig, which was derived from the Hebrew ‘Pag’ or ‘Feg’ to describe an unripened fig.  The species epithet Carica refers to the ancient region of Caria, which is now SW Turkey; this region was a center of Fig cultivation for many centuries.   Due to the length of human cultivation, its native provenance is merely speculation, but it is thought to have originated in Western Asia.
Figs produce fruits several times a year.  The initial crop is produced on the previous year’s growth during July into early August, which is called the Breba Crop.  The larger and often sweeter crop is produced on the current season’s growth in September and October.  If the plant has experienced a cold winter and the previous year’s wood has suffered severe die-back, the Breba Crop will be lacking. The ‘fruit’ of the fig is a fascinating structure.  If you have ever grown or witnessed a fig growing over the course of a season, you will notice that a flower is never visible. Hidden from sight, the 50-7,000 flowers actually grow within a modified hollow appendage that appears like a small, immature fig called a syconium.  By growing within this structure, the flowers are totally protected from any environmental or predatory pressures,   Most figs are either dioecious, with male and female flowers occurring on separate plants or are gynodioecous, with female flowers appearing on one plant and bisexual flowers on another.  The plants are pollinated by a specialized wasp that enters through a small hole or ostiole at the base of the syconium and through its movements inside the structure, pollination transpires.  Interestingly, not all plants require fertilization for the development of fruit.  Many forms produce parthenocarpic ‘fruit’, whereby the fruit develops without fertilization and without seeds!  In regions where the wasp is absent, these parthenocarpic selections are obviously the selections of choice!    
In mild winter climates, figs can grow to small trees, with heights reaching 10-30’, although they can grow taller where conditions are ideal.  The plants typically sucker and colonize, covering a relatively vast expanse as I once witnessed in South Carolina, where the plant was easily 35’ across!  Plants require a full day of sun and well-drained soils to do their best.  They can also be espaliered against wall, but a root boundary is helpful in order to reduce the potential of suckering.  Figs are also an ideal container plant and can survive for many years in a given container – provided they receive proper fertilization and water! 
Of the figs available for NJ climates, the cultivar ‘Brown Turkey’ has proven to be hardy for the New Brunswick area and received a Royal Horticulture Society Award of Merit!  For a Breba Crop, the plants definitely need to be protected by placing straw around the stems and wrapping them with white poly during the winter.  At Rutgers Gardens, we do not provide any protection and typically get a fantastic yield in the fall.  Another hardy form is ‘Chicago Hardy’, although the fruit is reportedly not as sweet.

‘Fruit’ plants are certainly very diverse in nature.  If you are adverse to weekly sprays and seek a plant with ornamental foliage of Biblical reference and fruits that are high in Calcium and antioxidants, do not overlook the Common Fig – it is an easily grown fruit worthy of great consideration!