Enjoying the flavor of a freshly picked fig in the shade of the tree's canopy is a truly Southern tradition. Thomas Jefferson claimed in his retirement to want only to sit beneath a fig tree with his books and watch the days pass by. Luckily, he did a lot more than this. Jefferson not only spread the popularity of the fig from Europe but also expanded the area where the tree is grown.
What's So Great About a Fig?
The true flavor of a fig can only be appreciated by biting into the fresh fruit. Regardless of whether you like the classic "Brown Turkey" or the smaller purple or green-and-white types, you'll be impressed at how much fruit a single tree can produce. In most areas, figs will yield a small early harvest on the previous year's growth as well as a later, bigger harvest on the new summer growth.
Though eating fresh figs is a great way to spend summer days, the fruit is also perfect for eating throughout the year. In fact, there's no better reminder of summer on a cold day than a stash of fig preserves. For another delicious way to use figs, see "No-Cook Homemade Ice Cream" on page 74 of the August issue of Southern Living.
Using Figs in the Landscape
In addition to their incomparable flavor, figs have become a Southern staple because they're so versatile and easy to grow. "They really are the perfect fruit for the South," says Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. "They love the heat, and the insects just seem to ignore them."
While Virginia is about as far north as figs will grow, there are some simple ways to ensure trees aren't hurt by a hard freeze. Peter explains, "Jefferson planted his figs against a south-facing wall to benefit from the radiant heat. Figs also grow well when espaliered against a wall, creating a beautiful shape." When temperatures dip below 15 degrees, mulch or cover trees with fabric. Protect the roots of container-grown figs by moving them indoors when temperatures fall below 20 degrees.
Even if a fig dies back during a particularly cold winter, some selections will grow back as multiple-branched shrubs and produce fruit that year. "LSU Purple" and "Alma" are tasty, cold-hardy choices that are increasing in popularity.
In the Lower and Coastal South, figs are generally hardy and make perfect fast-growing shade trees. With basic pruning of cross branches and suckers in late winter, the bare trunks create beautiful structure for any garden. In smaller yards, you can plant just one tree and still have fruit production, because most common figs don't require pollination.
At a Glance
Size: 15 to 20 feet
Light: partial to full sun, more in Upper South
Soil: any well drained
Fertilizer: Avoid using too much nitrogen.
Pests: Protect fruit from birds by netting tree. Pick ripe fruit promptly.
Range: Middle, Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South. Winter temperatures
that consistently fall below 0 degrees may kill the plants.
You can purchase fig trees from Johnson Nursery, 1-888-276-3187 or www.johnsonnursery.com (O); Paradise Nursery (757) 421-0201 or www.paradisenursery.com (O); and Petals From the Past (205) 646-0069 or www.petalsfromthepast.com (O) (R). Availability of selections varies from year to year. You can buy fresh figs from Diamond Organics, 1-888-674-2642 or www.diamondorganics.com (O).
"The Southern Fruit" is from the August 2004 issue of Southern Living.