The Saga of my Fig Tree

by Carol Nelson
At my age, drooping is not necessarily a good thing.
Nevertheless, I find myself checking every day (sometimes several times a day) for drooping of the plump green fruits on my fig tree. Days of sun, then heavy rain from Hurricane Matthew and more sun have so far failed to coax the tree into relaxing its fruit for picking.
One of Psycho Fig’s branches…no drooping yet.

This tree has needed extra attention from the time I bought it four years ago. It didn’t like the first planting location and didn’t thrive – so the mantra of “right plant, right place” got me to move it two more times to its present site in the lee
of the house and back deck. Bingo! Protected from the prevailing westerly winds and in ample sunlight, finally the tree bushed out. I knew not to expect fruit for the first couple of years (which didn’t stop me from planning fig jam and maybe even a batch of my favorite cookie, fig newtons).
Last fall I could tell that it was finally in its permanent spot, so I pruned the stalks back to 18” canes, packed straw around the base, wrapped everything in burlap from the fabric department and added a layer of white tarp to reflect heat. I pounded in a couple of tall metal stakes to give the tarp an angled top to help it shed rain and snow. All winter, the back garden was dominated by the hulking white form, but the wrap did its job. After a cozy rest, the tree promptly put out big leaves when I unwrapped it in mid-March.
Remember the Spring of 2016? Unpredictable all the way. LOTS of rain. Temps up and down. The fig got partially re-wrapped a couple of times later in March and then whammo, a week of below-freezing weather in April was enough to blacken a lot of the leaves. Gradually, new shoots started again – andkept growing even into the hot, dry summer with more TLC from cistern irrigation.
I probably didn’t entirely plan for the full-growth size of this plant, which is now 14’ high and at least that wide. We affectionately call her, “Psycho Fig.” A real presence in the back yard, she will get even larger. Waving branches have overwhelmed one compost bin and pushed out the edges of the garden fence. And this year, there are figs everywhere.
This is my first fig tree (a Ficus carica ‘Kadota’) so I had much to learn from it. Members of the mulberry family, figs are one of the oldest cultivated crops. They were first planted and appreciated in arid climates at least as early as 5,000 B.C., even before wheat became a staple. I shouldn’t wonder why my fig is doing better in the tilled garden area, since this area has consistent sun, protection from winds and well-drained soil with added organic matter.
On the East Coast, figs take care of their own pollination. The green, purple or brown orb we covet is actually an edible flower ball (or “syconium”) with a crunchy enclosed inflorescence of tiny male and female flower threads. Figs are tolerant of drought and fairly pest- and disease-free, if you don’t count the occasional nematode, thrip and fruit-stealing critter.
At this point, I can’t imagine propagating any offspring. If I wanted to, however, I learned that I could select a low-growing branch, bend it over and secure it to the ground with a couple of U-shaped wires, then cover it shallowly with soil until it rooted and could be severed from the mother tree. Or a cutting could be rooted in a ball of moist peat moss and soil. It’s a good idea to wear gloves when harvesting, pruning or working with cuttings from figs since they produce a type of latex that may irritate the skin.
The fruit, whenever it’s ready, will be a good source of dietary fiber, several useful antioxidants and phytochemicals and the essential minerals manganese, calcium and iron. Ripe figs keep in the refrigerator only a few days after picking. I might dehydrate them (4-5 days in the sun or 10-12 hours in the dehydrator) or freeze them for a future sweet snack for under 40 calories each. To get started on newtons, I could simmer the fruit with a splash of lemon and honey, mashing and reducing the liquid as it cooks and then pureĆ© the mixture in the blender.
So – I have one big fig tree that has taught many lessons that boil down to right place, happy plant. I can almost smell the fig bars.