Tree of the Week: The highly productive fig
Native from the eastern Mediterranean region through western Asia, the fig tree has been cultivated for close to 10 millennia; fossilized figs that age were found in the Jordan valley. Typically we reserve the word fig tree for the tree with the familiar edible figs, while we call the remaining estimated 1,000-plus species in the genus Ficus either by their botanical name or a composite one, such as Fiddleleaf Fig. This member of the Mulberry (Moraceae) family was introduced in California’s San Diego Mission in 1769, hence the name Mission fig. Today California is the world’s third-largest fig producer. Cal-IPC rates the tree moderately invasive.
Growing fairly fast to 15 to 30 feet tall and at least as wide, the deciduous fig tree has a beautifully sculptural trunk and smooth silvery white bark. Thick, somewhat sagging branches create a strongly picturesque pattern. Latex sap from branches and leaf bases may irritate the skin. The three to five lobed, to 10 inches long, tropical looking leaves feel rough to the touch on top and softly hairy below; they cast a dense shade.
Flowers are extremely interesting since they grow on the inside of what looks like the fruit, but is actually a fleshy, hollow receptacle (synconium). The tiny flowers are either male, female or modified female. The fig tree has developed a very complicated flower pollination relationship with a tiny fig wasp, but in many varieties fruit will develop inside the receptacle even around non-fertilized flowers. This is good since the fig wasp is not native to most of the country; it was introduced in Fresno in 1899.
Green, yellow, brown, purple or striped fruit of many varieties develops as the first or "breba" crop on last year’s growth, while the main crop is borne on the current year’s wood. The fig tree is highly productive, which makes it a delight in the orchard and a nuisance near paved areas. It appreciates full sun, most any soil and regular watering. It can stand considerable cold. Nematodes are potential pests.
-- Pieter Severynen
Photo: Pieter Severynen