Search For The Answer
Click here to access our database of
Plant Answers
Search For The Picture
Click here to access the Google database of plants and insects

Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

Return to Gardening Columns Main Index

Questions for the Week

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 as follows:

- 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 in
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 of
baked items

- lower in calories per gram of dietary fiber than other popular fruits, and even lower than nearly all of the highly promoted bran cereals

- 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 cholesterol level)

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, and souring.

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 accelerated rate.

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 vegetable oils.

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 of action.

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 netting.

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 at: