Unusual & Old Fashioned Fruit Trees

Fig - Ficus Carica 

Several varieties of Fig are grown commercially, but in the UK the Brown Turkey fig is the hardiest and usually the only one seen on sale in Garden Centres. They are not grafted, unlike many more traditional fruit trees such as apples and cherries, and they rarely develop any health problems as they are very resistant to all pests and diseases.

Figs are best grown in a large pot and given shelter from the hardest parts of the  Winter, although they will survive all but the worst of British Winters. We have had one planted against a South facing wall for about 12 years with no die back at all. Figs are unusual in as much as un-restricted roots may lead to excessive leaves and growth generally, with little or no fruit. Planting in a suitably sized pot can restrict the roots to give a good crop, or if the fig is going to be planted in the ground, it should be planted in a slab lined pit filled with compost mixed with brick rubble. A word of caution though, do not plant them near to a building as their roots can easily damage foundations and walls.

Some books say that figs are not for the faint hearted gardener as they need lots of attention, but from experience, after planting there is little to do each year. Pruning is best carried out in the Summer to shape up the sprawling, rambling tree, although frost damage may require attention in the Spring. Freshly cut branches may ooze a sticky milky sap not unlike the latex of the Rubber tree to which they are related. Surprisingly, figs need a lot of water, especially while their fruit is developing, but they should not be over fed as this will just result in lots of large leaves.

There is one variety of Fig that is rarely available which is usually grown just for its large ornamental leaves rather than the small edible figs it produces. Ice Crystal (Ficus Carica 'Ice Crystal') has long, divided, almost finger like leaves that grow in the shape of ice crystals making it a very decorative, architectural plant. Like the Brown Turkey it is very hardy, but can suffer in extremely cold winters.

Fig trees are self fertile and naturally crop continuously in warmer climates, but they will only produce a Summer/Autumn crop outside in the UK. If figs are grown in a greenhouse that is warm enough over winter they may give later cropping. In the Autumn the figs will change colour, darken and when fully ripe they will soften a little so that they give a little when squeezed gently. Our tree crops regularly and the last good crop gave over 40 ripe fruits, although it does vary from one year to the next. This may not sound like a lot of fruit, but when you think that the regular shop prices are often 50 pence per fig it gives a different  perspective to the value of the crop. Fresh figs are so completely different to eat to dried figs that someone given a blind taste test would almost certainly say that they were not the same fruit.

After the leaves have dropped in the late autumn it is advisable to remove all the small undeveloped fruits by simply twisting and snapping them off as they will not develop outside and if left on the plant will prevent a good crop for the following Summer. If removed cleanly no harm will come to the plant, although a little milky sap may ooze out of the break.

Most trees are difficult to root compared to other garden plants and as most fruit trees are grafted anyway it is not normally even worth trying to root cuttings. However, fig trees are not grafted and do root relatively easily, although they do take several months and need the correct conditions or else they will rot. An 18 inch cutting taken in the autumn, trimmed of all leaves and ragged bits, should be pushed firmly into poor, well drained, dry-ish soil and left over winter. With luck, by the following Summer the dormant buds should be showing green and roots starting to form. Cuttings should then be potted in better soil and watered to get some growth on before the following Winter. The cuttings will take the maturity of the parent plant and so will develop very quickly compared to any seedling plant that may have been bought. (This is how nurserymen can sell very small, table sized olive/orange/fig trees in full fruit even though they have not been grafted and are not dwarf varieties)

Another useful way of rooting Fig tree cuttings is to ground layer the stems. This method of propagation is not used much commercially these days except in Coffee Plantations (see Coffee) as it requires much space and effort. However, as fig trees tend to droop it is an easy matter to bend small branches, that are growing low down, even further and peg them down into the ground with small wire hoops. The branches should be lightly scratched at a leaf bud before being buried in soil. They will continue growing as normal, but after some months if you carefully scrape back the soil you should see roots forming on the buried shoots. The rooted branches can then be cut off and potted, but you must keep them shaded for a while, because their new roots will not be able to provide all the moisture they had from their parent tree, until they develop properly.

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