Figs as Companions? – Go Figure

by Alec McCarter  2005


This article of Alec’s was first published in the Finnerty Gardens newsletter January of this year.


When I first came to Victoria, in 1980, I was stunned to learn from one of the ladies at the lab, that she had a fig tree that actually produced ripe figs.  She brought me a few and I thought I had never before tasted anything so good.  Later, she introduced me to her preserved unripe figs, done in a spiced, sugary syrup.  They were delicious.


In my wanderings through the Finnerty Gardens, while walking our little dog (on a leash, of course), I found a large fig tree that had big green, ripe fruits which I sampled (in order not to let the birds peck holes in and waste them).  The figs were soft and sweet with crunchy bits inside.


So, when John Trelawny kindly offered my wife a cutting from his tree, we were only too happy to plant it immediately behind a rock wall where its roots would be confined and it would receive some warmth from the sun-heated rock.  This was not long before the severe frost of November 11, 1985.  The small tree, for that is what it was then, suffered damage that required hard pruning, but it survived and the next year produced a few latent swellings to overwinter and provide fruit in the following summer.  Then, we had our first fig from that small tree.  What a delight!  We waited until the fruit had drooped and was squishy to the touch, then shared it between the two of us.  What a treat!


From that time on, the fig grew into a large tree, much larger than we had anticipated, but very decorative with its large multi-lobed leaves.  From their shape (and size), we could see why Adam – as well as nearly every sculptor of the male nude used the fig leaf since his time with the exception of Michelangelo’s David – as a prudish shield to cover parts not normally depicted.


The tree readily put up shoots, one of which we moved to the sunny side of a high wall between us and our neighbour to the north.  It outgrew the space that we had allotted, and its roots threatened to break the concrete patio on its north side.  Once established, the fig was determined to grow again, despite repeatedly being cut to the ground.  At last, a spray of ‘Roundup’ completed its removal.


In the meantime, a ‘Brown Turkey’ was acquired.  It was placed close to a brick wall lining our own patio and it prospered.  Not so large as the white-fig, it has required only removal of dead-wood that occurs through the winters.


In the very severe cold weather that struck on February 1, 1989, both it and the white fig suffered the loss of some branches, but these were replaced by vigorous growth the next summer.  Since then, we have had no severe frost damage.


The fig is twice-bearing.  A small first crop is produced on last-year’s wood from over-wintering fruit fruit-buds.  A second crop occurs after the first, when, as summer goes along, hundreds of new figs grow and swell.  The figs we grow here do not require the fig insect to fertilize them.


Over the winter, both trees carry over small nubs along a foot or so of the last-years’ wood.  When summer comes again, these increase in size until, about the end of July to mid-August, they are fully formed and begin to droop.  As mentioned before, the fruit is picked when it is soft and the skin is easily bruised.  The ripe fig may even begin to burst its skin with its goodness, and wasps may find it a tasty source of sugar fit for gorging themselves.  Birds too may discover the sweetness so that the gardener should be vigilant at the time of harvest to prevent loss to other predators.


Pruning must be done to keep the size of the trees under control.  Whole branches may be removed.  But it is also important to prune in a way that maximizes the chances of getting a good crop of fruit.  Clearly, one should prune so as to increase the number of embryonic figs and not cut them off.  The way to do this is to wait until about mid June and cut back the tips of new growth, not so far that last year’s fruit-buds are removed (for that would eliminate any chance of getting the first crop) but so that the formation of more branches can occur during the remainder of the summer.  An increased number of branches should ensure that more immature buds will develop to carry over until the following summer.  The production of the second crop will not be much affected by pruning in this manner.


Only a few dozen figs of the first crop may ripen on an individual tree in a good year.  More often than not in Victoria, none of the second crop comes to ripeness before the cool weather and rains of autumn begin.  It is said to be a good idea to remove these unripened fruits before they rot on the tree.  It is easy to knock them off, leaving the incipient fruit buds untouched.  This last fall, however, most of the summer-borne crop ripened.  We had from these two trees more figs than we could manage to eat.  Large bowlfuls were emptied and replaced until we could eat no more.  The white fig tree had huge fruits weighing as much as 300 grams each.  When cut open, their flesh is pale-green-white, and it is very sweet.  The Brown Turkey has brown skin and flesh is rose in colour.  It also is very sweet and the tiny seeds are crunchy.  Delicious!  Of the two, I prefer the white.


Now, why do I think that fig trees are useful as companions for rhododendrons?  Firstly, they do not become too large to be out of scale.  Their green foliage is attractive as background against which the foliage and flowers of Rhododendrons can be displayed, at a distance, perhaps because their cultural requirements are different.  In the autumn, the foliage of the figs blazes bright yellow – again an attractive counter-balance to the greens of the rhododendrons, and in the winter, the structures created by the leafless branches are interesting and beautiful in their own way.


Of course, it is for the delicious fruits that we grow them, but they do have these additional attributes that make them valuable in the garden.