Figs are a classic southern treat that grow especially well in South Central Texas south of the line from Houston to San Antonio. The fruits are prized for their rich sweet taste and are high in natural sugars, minerals and soluble fiber.
Common fig domesticated more than 10,000 years ago
The common fig (Ficus carica) is believed to have been the first plant domesticated by humans more than 10,000 years ago in areas of the Middle East and western Asia. During the mid-18th century figs were brought from Spain to California and from there spread to regions of the southern United States with long growing seasons and mild winters.
- Persistent/common type most prevalent grown in Texas
The common fig has four distinct fruiting or horticultural types, one of which is the persistent or common type and is the most prevalent type grown in Texas. Unlike other fruits that develop from the pollinated female flower, the fig fruit is actually an enlarged, fleshy hollow of stem tissue enclosing masses of tiny flowers.
The fruit of the common type develops without pollination and produces no seeds. The gelatin-like center is actually the unfertilized flowers.
- Must be ripe before harvest
Figs must be ripe before harvesting because they will not continue to ripen once picked, and even with refrigeration will only last one to two days. To have access to fresh figs it is necessary to have a local source such as a farmers market, a generous friend or your own backyard.
- Sun, soil, site
Fig trees need a location that receives at least seven to eight hours of full sun and provides adequate drainage to prevent standing water. Early-morning sun is particularly important to dry dew on leaves and fruit to reduce the incidences of disease.
They can tolerate a wide range of soil types and pH levels from 5.5 to 8.0, but prefer loam with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5.
Fig trees can get quite large. A mature, multi-trunked tree can reach a height of 15 to 20 feet and have an equal distance in its spread. Choose a location to accommodate its growth.
- Care and maintenance
Fig trees have shallow, fibrous root systems that need protection from water loss, winter temperature fluctuations and soil compaction.
- Need deep layered mulch; little fertilizer
Maintaining a deep layer of mulch will conserve moisture and improve soil structure and fertility, reduce weed competition and insulate the root systems from freezing conditions. Figs require very little fertilization but may benefit from a light application of compost in early spring.
- Plant when dormant – late winter to early spring
The best time to plant a new tree is in late winter or early spring when the plant is still dormant. It is recommended to plant it 2 to 3 inches deeper than it was grown and to cut back the dormant trunk by a third to compensate for root loss and promote lateral branching. Do not fertilize at the time of planting.
- Have frost and freeze sensitivity
Fig trees are frost and freeze sensitive, but it is less of a problem in our region than in other parts of the state. Mature trees that are fully dormant can endure temperatures as low as 10 degrees with little damage. Young plants will need extra freeze protection until they get firmly established.
Three popular varieties for our area
- Celeste is a classic Southern variety that is commonly referred to as the sugar fig. The fruit is small and has an excellent dessert quality with a rich, sweet flavor. Celeste generally has only one main crop beginning in mid- to late June.
- Alma is a high quality fig released by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in 1974. It produces a medium-sized fruit with an excellent rich, sweet flavor. Alma is very frost sensitive, especially as a young tree, but once established, it is more cold-hardy.
- Texas everbearing produces a medium- to large-sized fig with a mild, sweet flavor. It can bear two crops per year with the early crop ripening in May and the main crop ripening in late June into August. It is the most common variety in Central Texas.
Tough plants once established
Getting figs started is the hardest part of growing them.
- TLC needed for young plants
Until established, give young plants extra tender loving care, including consistent moisture and extra freeze protection.
- Pests and diseases
Various pests and diseases can affect fig trees. See information published with this column for types and solutions when available.
Decades of nature’s candy
Once established, figs are pretty tough plants that will give you decades of deliciously sweet fruit you can pick fresh from your backyard.