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Which fruit tree is the most likely candidate for the biblical Tree of Knowledge? Which fruit contains more fibre than any other? Which fruit, when dried, has up to 50% sugar?
The answer to all these questions is the fig and while you may only have seen these purple pear-shaped fruits in the supermarket in late summer and autumn it is perfectly possible to grown them in your own garden without too much effort. Your reward will be soft, aromatic fruits with dark syrupy centres which can be used in many dishes both sweet and savoury and which will be a change from the usual garden apples or plums.
Botanically, the fig is an "accessory" fruit and starts off as a tiny pea-sized green swelling on the tree branch, often near the bases of the leaves. As this grows and swells tiny flowers form inside, completely hidden from the outside world and in many fig varieties these are pollinated by a tiny fig wasp which lives inside the developing fruit. After a period of growing and maturing, the fig will ripen and depending on the variety can have a skin anywhere from green through to yellow or purple. Cutting through the papery skin reveals a thin layer of white pulp surrounding the centre of the fig which is usually a dark pink or red, very syrupy and sweet with its own special flavour. All parts of the fruit are edible, including the skin, and in pollinated varieties the fruit will be full of tiny crunchy seeds which give a slight nutty flavour to the fruit.
The fig is a hardy shrub which in the wild can grow to 30ft, although cultivated varieties tend to be smaller. Being deciduous it comes into leaf around late April and drops its leaves again in October or November. It has a tendency to spread outwards rather than up and so will usually form a bush rather than a tall tree which makes it an ideal plant for urban gardens. The attractive leaves are large with up to five lobes and are usually dark green and covered with many soft hairs. In hot climates, figs can fruit twice a year but in cooler locations such as the U.K. there will be only one crop, even when the plants are grown under glass.
Growing figs is a fairly straightforward procedure as the plants don't really need all that much
Pictures of Fig Tree
special care. New plants can be raised by taking cuttings from established trees and this is the best way if you know someone who owns a fig tree. Cuttings can be taken in summer from the new, soft wood formed that year and should be about 6 inches long with several leaf buds present on them. Plant these in ordinary potting compost and keep in a moist, shady position until they have rooted, which will take about 2-3 months.
The other way to grow figs is to buy new plants from a fruit tree supplier and fortunately there are quite a number now which sell fig trees and many will supply them via mail order too.
In my case, I bought a couple of fig trees about 3 years ago through a mail order nursery and when they arrived the plants were both about 1ft tall, with a dozen or so small leaves on them. One of the great things about fig plants is that they will actually fruit much better if you restrict the root growth and this means they are ideal for growing in containers. I planted my two in small tubs in ordinary compost and have since repotted them every year as they get bigger so that they are now in very large (1-2 ft diameter) tubs. At this stage it is now too awkward to keep repotting them as the plants are too big and heavy so instead I scrape away the top few inches of compost each spring, cut away some of the roots and replace with fresh compost. In this way, the plants spend their whole lives in the greenhouse and certainly benefit from the higher summer temperatures here and the protection from frost and cold winds which a greenhouse offers in winter.
However, fig trees can be grown outdoors too and even in my part of the country (central Scotland) will grow and fruit. I know of a well-established tree some 30 feet tall which grows close to my home and is always covered in a great many ripening figs during the summer. Grown outdoors they should always be given a sheltered location and grown up against a warm sunny wall if possible. Their roots should also be restricted in some way and this can be done by digging a hole for the plant and lining the base of the hole with bricks or rocks before putting the plant in. Grown outside, figs are quite happy and in the U.K. shouldn't need any winter protection unless we have an especially severe cold snap, when it is a good idea to wrap the plant in Hessian or dry bracken to prevent frost damage. However, due to the unpredictability of U.K. summers, plants will usually fruit better and earlier if grown in a greenhouse.
Once established, plants need to be fed during the growing season and although they don't require much pruning the growing tips of the branches should be pinched off in mid-summer to encourage new growth each year (figs only ripen on newly formed wood). It is also helpful to cut away any branches in the wrong place so that the plant forms the shape you want and in the case of greenhouse grown plants, they will need to be cut back to stop them getting to big for their home. They aren't really bothered by any pests, although if you grow them under glass then they can be attacked by red spider mite (like many greenhouse plants) during hot, dry weather.
In the UK the fruits themselves form during the summer as tiny green figlets, normally near the bases of the leaf stalks. These persist over the winter after the leaves drop and then ripen the following summer. Only in hot climates can you expect figs to form and ripen the same year. However, when the leaves drop you must go over the plant and pull off any figlets larger than pea-sized. Although it is tempting to leave them, larger figlets will not actually survive the winter and when the plant comes to life the following spring these will steal nourishment from the smaller figlets before rotting and dropping off the tree, leaving you disappointed. When ripe, figs will have changed colour and will also feel softer. Don't pick them before they are ripe as they will not ripen off the tree and you will end up disappointed again.
In terms of variety there are many to choose from, although UK growers should select the hardiest varieties which also fruit the earliest, to make the most of the short UK growing season. In my case I chose Brown Turkey and White Adriatic, both of which are very tough and both of which are quite prolific in their fruiting. These two varieties are very commonly offered by nurseries (particularly Brown Turkey) and I can recommend them both very highly. In particular, if you want to grow your tree outdoors, then Brown Turkey is really the best variety for the UK climate. Varieties for cold climates are also self-fertile and so don't need the services of a fig wasp to pollinate them; this is crucial as the fig wasp only lives in hot climates.
♣♣♣Availability and Value for Money♣♣♣
There are a large number of fruit tree nurseries in the UK and many are happy to dispatch plants via mail order. I purchased my two trees from Reads Nursery (www.readsnursery.co.uk) and had them delivered by mail order about 5 days after I placed the order. Currently, Reads stock a huge range of different fig varieties and while they no longer seem to stock White Adriatic, they do have Brown Turkey and many more besides. Prices at the moment are £10.50 or £16.50 for a 1-2ft Brown Turkey plant (the higher price is a larger tree) and plants come with a very useful leaflet guide on cultivation. Other sources include www.ornamental-trees.co.uk and www.globalorangegroves.co.uk, or else a simple web search will turn up other nurseries near you. Generally fig trees are not stocked by local garden centres although you may be lucky if you search around.
The prices of trees are generally £10-20, which isn't really a great deal given that these plants will grow well if given the minimum of care and provide an exotic touch to any garden or greenhouse. The luscious fruit is produced very reliably and although you may need to wait a year or two before your tree starts to fruit, it is well worth it.
Personally, I think they are best eaten straight from the tree without any other preparation. In some countries (e.g. Italy) they are served with prosciutto as a starter and of course they also feature in many cakes, puddings, wines and jams. If you grow a tree yourself you may find that you don't get many fruits for the first few years and if this is the case then they are really best enjoyed raw. Some people find they are not sweet enough when raw but a bit of sugar (or better still honey) sprinkled over them brings out the flavour a bit more.
Easy to grow plants which are at home in the greenhouse or outdoors. Very attractive leaves which add an unusual exotic touch to any garden followed by delicious fruit in late summer. I thoroughly recommend these to anyone with the space and inclination to grow them and promise that they will provide a more exciting alternative than the usual garden fruits of summer. If the current U.K. trend of hot summers and mild winters continues then figs may start to become a more common outdoor sight in this country and more people will be able to enjoy these luscious fruits.
I have bought two Brown Turkeys this year and have decided to keep them in pots. Mine are still young but have plenty of green growth and are looking really healthy so hopefully by next year I will start having figs on them. Lovely review xx
MAFARRIMOND 24.05.2007 11:37
Wehave a fig tree - it hasn't borne any fruits to date though. Maureen
The-Vicars-wife32 03.01.2007 20:30
WOW! what a great review!!!! I never knew i could grow a fig tree outside! x