FIGS AND RIPENING FIG FRUIT EARLY
by Jerry Parsons, Ph.D.
Horticulture Specialist, Texas Agricultural Extension Service
in San Antonio
Without a doubt, today's most publicized food-related
topics are dietary fiber, calcium and potassium. The perfect
fruit to make a valuable contribution in each category is
figs. Pound for pound, or ounce for ounce, figs:
- have the highest dietary fiber content of
any common fruit, nut or vegetable
- are from 90 % to over 1,000 % higher in calcium
than other common fruits. (In fact, on an equal weight basis,
figs have a higher calcium content than whole cow's milk)
- are 80 % higher in potassium content than bananas
(generally thought of as the best source of potassium)
In addition to high dietary fiber, calcium and potassium,
a few of the many other reasons to enjoy figs frequently are
- plant protein content that is nearly twice as high as other
dried fruits, and over 10 times that of most fresh fruits
- a high content of easily digestible natural sugars such
as glucose and fructose
- a higher overall score in mineral content than other common
- one of the few alkaline foods, and is considered beneficial
balancing alkalinity and as an aid to digestion
- the only fruit listed in the "Foods & Nutrition
Encyclopedia" as a "good" source of calcium
- a natural humectant which extends shelf life or freshness
- lower in calories per gram of dietary fiber than other popular
fruits, and even lower than nearly all of the highly promoted
- over 40 % higher in dietary fiber than other Raisin
- higher in pectin fiber than other fruits (pectin is a soft
soluble fiber which helps toxic waste removal and reduces
The fig is native to the Mediterranean basin. You may already
be familiar with some members of the fig family, such as the
ornamental rubber tree, the mulberry, and the Osage orange
or hedge apple. If your soil is well drained and reasonably
fertile, you most likely will have success growing figs.
Another exciting fact about figs is that they produce reasonably
well in shaded areas. In fact, some say that the fig actually
does better in a shady location, so it qualifies as one of
the only shade-tolerant fruits. Look for the Celeste (Sugar
Fig) or Alma varieties.
Cold weather and nematodes are two factors which affect fig
culture. You cannot do much about the weather, but you can
control nematodes by planting non-infected plants.
Figs have a shallow root system and should not be cultivated.
Just mulch with leaves or other organic material to conserve
moisture and keep weeds under control. For best results when
fertilizing, apply a pound of a slow-release fertilizer for
each year of age until a maximum of 12 pounds of fertilizer
per plant is reached; then maintain this rate each year. (If
you don't the plant's age, a rule of thumb is to apply a pound
of fertilizer per year for each foot of height.)
Apply the fertilizer as follows:
- on heavy soils, when the buds swell
- on sandy soils, ½ the amount as buds swell, and then
the other ½ in late May. Put the fertilizer over mulch
in a circle, starting from the ends of the branches, and working
toward the trunk in a 1-foot band.
If the fig plant produces more than 1 to 2
feet of new growth per year, reduce or eliminate nitrogen
fertilization. The amount of fertilizer needed depends on
the soil's fertility. Over-fertilizing with nitrogen promotes
succulent growth late in the growing season, a condition or
problem that makes plants more susceptible to winter injury.
Excessive nitrogen also results in light fruiting, fruit splitting,
Figs require very little pruning. Prune in
late winter, just before new growth begins. Make smooth clean
cuts, close to the lateral branch, and do not leave any stubs.
To control the fig tree's height, prune by opening the bush,
removing dead wood and suckers from the trunk and main branches,
then cutting off drooping branches. This pruning method produces
easier picking, larger fruit, and better control of the tree's
vigor. Prune sufficiently to stimulate about a foot of new
growth each year on most branches.
Figs are highly perishable and ferment under
ordinary conditions shortly after being picked. You must use
the fruit as it ripens. The fruit cannot be sun-dried because
of the high humidity.
Fresh figs are not tasty until soft and ripe. Therefore, pick
them just as the fruit begins to soften. Ripe figs can be
stored for a short time at cool temperatures (about 40 degrees
F) to retard spoilage and souring. For preserving, figs may
be picked a few days before they are fully ripe. The fruit
will hold together better once cooked, a step that reduces
the chance of spoilage or souring.
If your skin is sensitive to the fig's milky
latex, wear gloves during harvest.
Fig plants are not completely cold hardy in
Texas. During severe low temperatures (20 degrees F or less),
they may freeze back to the ground. When severe weather is
predicted, you can protect plants by covering them with straw,
mulch, or other suitable material. The plants will recover
from above-ground injury, but fruiting will be delayed until
new growth is forced out. There is a process for ripening
delayed fruit set.
If plants are initiating new growth this year
because they froze back, this tender growth will probably
have to be protected this coming winter if survival is expected.
The older the trunk, the more cold tolerant the plant. In
late fall, protect the trunk by piling loose soil or mulch
1 to 2 feet high around the base of the trunk. Cedar chips
work great and won't cause possible rotting. Remove the soil
in the spring when frost is no longer a hazard.
Fig varieties usually ripen their fruit during
July or August. Souring of figs results chiefly from entry
into the fig by insects that carry souring organisms upon
their bodies. Populations of such insects and souring organisms
are higher in late summer than earlier in the season. Earlier
ripening of figs would thus be greatly beneficial.
An ancient, but little known practice can provide
a simple way to ripen figs 30 days or more before their normal
ripening date. This practice, in use as early as the third
century B.C., is known as "oleification" and consists
of applying one of a variety of oils to the eye of the fig
fruit at a time when it will respond by ripening at a greatly
Oleification was probably discovered quite by
accident, and one can only speculate about how it happened.
However, since both figs and olives grow in the same region,
olive oil and figs must have come together quite early. At
some unknown time, someone found that the application of olive
oil to the eye of green figs would cause them to ripen far
earlier than untreated figs. Other oils have been shown to
produce the same effect. Mineral oil has worked as well as
There are a number of theories concerning the
cause of the response, but very little evidence exists to
support any of them. Several features of the "oil response"
seem to support the theory that it is caused by a growth regulator
produced by the fruit when influenced by the oil. Since many
different oils, and even some materials other than oils, produce
the same type of response, no component of the oil itself
seems to be involved. Fig growers can continue to benefit
from the practice while researchers puzzle about its method
An added benefit is that several figs will
ripen on each shoot at the same time, rather than at naturally
occurring intervals of 1 or 2 days. The treatment to induce
early ripening is quite simple, consisting of the application
of a small amount of oil, usually olive oil or heavy mineral
oil such as that used for medicinal purposes, to the eye of
the fig. Care should be taken to avoid applying the oil to
other parts of the fruit. The use of a small cotton applicator
makes the job easy.
Timing the application is very important. Applying
oil too early can cause the young figs to drop before ripening.
Applications made too late are ineffective. Because of the
bearing habit of the fig, however, this is not too much of
a problem. Since the figs at successive nodes up the shoot
are younger toward the tip, fruits of a receptive stage can
usually be found.
In the varieties common to Texas, the receptive
stage seems to coincide with the time that the pulp of the
fruit turns pink. By cutting open a few fruits several days
apart, beginning about the first of June, you can easily determine
when the oldest figs on the shoot are receptive. An application
of oil to the first three figs on shoots, made when the most
basal fig shows pink pulp, will usually ripen three or four
figs in a short period of time, often within 5 days after
treatment. Untreated figs of the same age may require more
than 30 days longer to ripen.
The Celeste (Sugar Fig) variety, which is a
common variety in this area, often drops its fruit in the
early part of the ripening season, usually following an early
spring drought. When premature dropping occurs, the earliest
figs on the shoots may already be affected to the extent that
they will not respond to oleification. This merely means that
figs farther up the shoot must be selected when they show
pink pulp. In the absence of premature dropping, you can almost
predict by calendar date the time of receptivity to the oil
treatment, but using the color of the pulp as an indicator
is much more reliable. Other varieties will respond in similar
manner, although the acceleration of ripening is not as great
late in the season.
When figs are ripened early, they are especially
prone to bird damage, and some protection may be needed. Entire
shoots can be enclosed in paper or net bags following treatment,
and in some cases entire trees should be covered with bird
Some investigators have reported that the quality
of figs following oleification is lower than that of naturally
ripened figs, with the measure of quality being the content
of soluble solids, chiefly sugars. Other workers, however,
have reported higher quality for figs so treated. Environmental
conditions at the time of ripening will influence the sugar
content of the fruit, whether they are naturally ripened,
or accelerated in ripening by oleification.
For some great fig recipes, check PLANTanswers