Ray U. Givan - NAFEX Fig Interest Group Coordinator

History of Fig Growing

Figs have been cultivated in the Eastern Mediterranean area for thousands of years. Archaeologists like Daniel Zohary think it was one of the first fruits domesticated--as early as 4000 B. C. Sumerian scribes writing on clay tablets around 2500 BC in the reign of King Drukagina mention figs as do the earliest books in the Bible. In the New Testament, one of Jesus' parables deals with a fig that failed to produce. His remedy to apply fertilizer and care was highly appropriate.

The Spanish were the first to bring the fig to the United States (Florida by 1575). The Spanish Franciscan missionaries brought figs into California when they established a mission at San Diego in 1769. The fig they brought is "Mission." And, it is still a significant commercial fig. The Anglo-Americans who moved to California liked the "Mission" fig, but wanted all of the finest varieties and began importing cuttings and plants privately. The San Francisco Bulletin organized a campaign to establish the very best fig, the Sari Lop, from Smyrna, Turkey.

This campaign seemed like a complete failure for Sari Lop did not produce fruit in California and no one knew why it didn't. It couldn't be pollination--the most knowledgeable experts said figs did not need it. A lot of fig plants were torn up and thrown away as useless until the American botanist, Gustav Eisen, proved those particular experts were wrong. Some figs, including the "Sari Lop," needed pollination. W. T. Swingle imported the tiny pollinating insect, Blastophaga psenes, into California. It was a huge success and the California dried fig industry celebrated a few years later by giving the" Sari Lop" the new name "Calimyrna."

Using B. Psenes did not prove, however, to be a panacea. The little fellow pollinated figs, but it also spread diseases and fungi. The USDA research program recommended sanitary measures, but saw the final solution in the breeding of a substitute for "Calimyrna" which did not need pollinating (or caprification, as it is usually called). Ira J. Condit began studying figs in the 1920s and bred a large number of varieties, some of which were released beginning in 1957. William B. Storey continued his work into the 1980s. The fig industry is not large or politically powerful and the budget cuts of recent years have eliminated the fig breeding programs. Most of the material which Condit and Storey created has been lost, but a little is preserved at the USDA Clonal Resources Depository in Davis, California and a few private collections.

The only fig breeding being done today is by amateurs although figs are still a moderately important crop in California and some Mediterranean countries--Algeria, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Fresh figs ship poorly, so most of the crop is dried for export to areas that cannot grow figs. Some is made into paste for use in making fig newtons and other pastries. A tiny portion is canned. Gardeners grow figs around the world, consuming the fruit fresh, stewed, preserved or making it into jam. There are no significant commercial orchards in the Southern states at present time.


The common fig is a member of the genus Ficus that is included in the family Moraceae (Mulberries). Ficus is a large genus with some 2000 tropical and subtropical tree, shrub and vine species distributed around the whole world. The only Ficus cultivated for their fruit are the species F. carica (the common fig) and F. sycamorus (the sycamore fig of Egypt). F. carica is a diploid species with a basic chromosome number of x = 13. Hybrids are possible with a few other species including F. palmata, F. pseudo-carica and F. pumila.

The fruit of all Ficus species is the syconium, an enlarged, fleshy and hollow peduncle bearing closely massed tiny flowers on its inner wall. The true fruits are tiny drupelets which develop from these flowers. [When we eat a fig we are eating the container which holds the true fruit.]

There are two basic types of figs: caprifigs and edible figs. Caprifigs are males, which produce pollen, but are generally unpalatable due to the presence of chaffy stamen structures. There are many varieties of edible figs which fall into the three following fruiting classes:

Caducous (or Smyrna) figs need pollination to set crops. Without pollination the fruit drops before maturing. Caprifigs furnish the pollen needed. Examples are Marabout, Calimyrna (or Sari Lop), and Zidi.

Persistent (or Common) figs do not need pollination to set crops and are the type home gardeners most commonly grow. Examples are Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Celeste, Brunswick and Adriatic.

Intermediate Group (or San Pedro) figs do not need pollination to set a breba crop but do need it for the main crop (in some environments). Examples are King, Lampeira, and (of course) San Pedro.

Fig Varieties

Condit's massive monograph (See Suggested Reading) identifies 89 caprifig, 129 Smyrna, 21 San Pedro and 481 common fig varieties for a total of 720 varieties. Some of these varieties were never introduced into the United States; others were tried, found wanting and discarded. Our listing of 50+ varieties includes most of the figs available in the trade plus some varieties the authors think worthy of wider use. It divides the varieties into green and yellow figs and dark figs, arranged alphabetically by their most common name. We use bold type for the correct name, the one found in the scientific literature. (If there is no name in bold type, the variety is not covered by Condit or later authors.) The listing follows Condit's names.

Condit lists many characteristics in his own identifications, but the NAFEX website has room only for the major features of the fruit. Fig leaves vary tremendously and an important characteristic for identifying varieties. For further information consult Suggested Readings or Ray Givan, the NAFEX Fig Coordinator at 912 728-4028 or

Growing Figs

Figs are easy to grow in warm climates, but produce their best fruit in Mediterranean climates with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Although they are a subtropical species, mature trees are fully cold hardy to 15 or 20º F. People who wish to grow figs outside their normal range must plant them in containers or go to considerable efforts to protect them during the winter.

In the ground, fig plants can quickly reach 15 to 30 feet in height. The canopy can spread equally wide. The root system is typically very shallow without a taproot and can easily spreads to three times the diameter of the canopy. Ideally, fig plants should have a well-drained loam with plenty of organic matter, but they will tolerate average to poor soil. Once they are established they are somewhat drought tolerant (probably due to their very extensive and wide-ranging root system). Figs tolerate soils with pH ranging from 5.5 to 8.0. Growers with acidic soils should apply lime to bring the pH up the fig's preferred pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Alkaline soils will also support figs, if there are no black alkali deposits present.

Fig plants need plenty of sun (8+ hours at least) and heat which helps ripen the fruit. Figs respond very well (better than most fruit trees) to heavy applications of manure and compost. Be sure not to apply fertilizers too late in the growing season since that would spur new growth that cannot harden off before winter. Apply 2 to 3 cups of a balanced (6-6-6 or 8-8-8) fertilizer with micro-nutrients three times a year to mature, in-ground plants. If you grow figs in containers, be sure to use a fertilizer containing them. We recommend a complete slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote. Follow the package directions. Organic growers should apply generous amounts of compost and a high-nitrogen fertilizer like cottonseed, soybean or alfalfa meal.

For the best fruit production, water your figs regularly during the growing season unless rainfall is adequate. Take care that the soil is not constantly soggy. When fall arrives, stop watering and allow your plants to harden off. A word of caution: heavy rains and excessive or sporadic watering may cause the fruit to split. The amount of splitting varies from variety to variety, but a good rule of thumb is that the riper the figs, the more they will split and sour.

Container culture can be successful if you are diligent about watering and feeding the plants. Remember that nutrients leach quickly from containers. The easiest approach is to use a hefty pot (15+ gallons) and let the figs grow 5 to 10 feet tall with regular annual pruning of tops and roots to control the size. In climates where winter temperatures fall under 15-20° F, you will need to bring potted plants into an unheated garage or shed.

Propagating Figs

Figs are easy to propagate as they root very easily. There are several ways to propagate them. The most common method is to root leafless cuttings taken in late winter or early spring. Here's how to do it:

  1. Take cuttings which are 3 to 6 inches long and pencil to finger thick. The best cuttings will have some of last year's wood on them.
  2. If the weather is still unsettled and likely to frost, store the cuttings in a sealed ziplock in the produce bin in your refrigerator. If the weather is warm and likely to stay warm, pot your cuttings in sand or a good-quality potting mix.
  3. Using 4" deep plastic pots, pack a half sheet of newspaper tightly into the bottom of the pot. Put a little mix in the bottom, stand 1 to 4 cuttings upright in each pot and fill the pot with the mix.
  4. Water the pots thoroughly and stand them in a very bright, BUT NOT SUNNY place. It should be warm--70+° F. If you can't keep air temperature above 70°, provide bottom heat to bring the soil up to 70° F. Cover the pot with an empty 2 or 3 liter softdrink bottle with the bottom cut out. [Leave the lid on.]
  5. Don't water the cuttings again until they are very dry. Test for dryness occasionally by lifting the pot. If the pot is very light, water it by setting it in a pan of water and letting it soak. When you see vigorous growth, it is time to harden off the new plants. Remove the bottle cap and see how they do. If okay, remove the bottle after a few days. Keep an eye on them and reinstall the bottle if the plants wilt.
  6. After a few days, it will be time to pot up the new plants. Don't do this just because you see leaves growing. Sometimes there will be 4 or 5 leaves and few if any roots. Wait until you see vigorous growth. Apply fertilizer.

Overwintering Figs

Ficus carica is the northernmost species in the Ficus genus. Figs that are completely dormant before severely cold weather arrives can tolerate temperatures down to 15 to 20° F with little or no damage. Some varieties are hardier and can tolerate even lower temperatures. If the top is winterkilled, the plant will probably come back from the base or underground parts.

If you live in a colder area, it is very important to grow hardy varieties. The hardiest figs include the old favorites Celeste and English Brown Turkey and some new varieties like Alma and Hardy Chicago. Here are some tips on how to protect your figs in the coldest climates:

One method is to build a fighouse like A. J. Bullard of Mt. Olive, North Carolina has done to protect some of his varieties which are grafted onto a very hardy in-ground Celeste. He built a winter fighouse by setting pressure-treated posts in the ground around his tree. As winter approaches he attaches plywood to the posts to form walls and a roof. Additional protection is given by several 55-gallon drums stationed in the fighouse and filled with water. The water in the drums stores an enormous amount of heat energy that is released as temperatures fall below freezing. The energy released moderates temperatures in the fighouse. Even at temperatures near 0° F, the fighouse's temperature stays in the mid-twenties. [Do not try this in Minnesota. This will work only where warm and cold spells alternate during the winter and average temperatures are well above 32° F.]

For Severe Climates: There are three ways to over winter figs in severe climates:

  1. Permanently planted trees can be bent over, weighed down, and buried.
  2. Potted plants can be brought indoors or into the greenhouse, and
  3. Large potted plants can be depotted and buried.

Not sure how to do it? Call Ray Givan, the NAFEX Fig Coordinator, at 912-728-4028 or e-mail your questions to him at

Disease and Pest Problems

Figs are relatively pest and disease free, but they do have problems. The most serious problem for Southern growers who have light sandy soils is root knot nematodes. This type of infestation is easy to diagnose. Just uncover some roots and inspect them. If you see tiny galls or swellings on the roots you have root knot nematodes. The best control is to destroy infected plants and not use that site for figs again.

Fig trees and fruit are sometimes attacked by a variety of borers, mealybugs and scale insects. Dried-fruit beetles will sometimes enter figs through the eye of the fruit and cause them to sour. Varieties with open eyes are particularly susceptible to this problem. The best remedy for these problems is sanitation. Prune and burn infested wood and fruit. Don't allow piles of leaves and fruit to accumulate and offer breeding sites for insects. Fig Rust is a fairly serious fungal disease. It attacks young leaves, causing defoliation. It is also easy to recognize from the small yellow-green spots that appear on leaves. The spots will get bigger and turn yellowish brown. The leaf will soon yellow and fall. You can control fig rust by sanitation measures. Extension services also recommend spraying the new leaves with a 4-4-50 Bordeaux spray at three to four week intervals (more often in rainy weather). This will also protect your plants against other leaf and twig blights. Mosaic is a viral disease to which figs are more or less susceptible. The plainest symptom is mottled leaves. Some varieties are dwarfed--leaves and fruit-- by mosaic; others are scarcely effected. Mosaic is incurable, but rarely a reason to discard plants. We copied and made some minor revisions to following table from USDA Handbook No. 87 that covers the most common problems.


Probable cause

Suggested remedy

Fruit drops when it is 1/3 to 1/2 full size

Wrong variety for area. It needs pollination

Destroy tree and replace it with a recommended variety

Leaves drop off prematurely; fruit withers and fails to mature

Fig rust or other leaf diseases, or a twig blight.

Use 4-4-50 Bordeaux spray. Rake and burn old leaves

Poor fruiting. Tree growth is retarded. Roots have knots or galls and are distorted.

Nematode damage

Mulch; Use pot culture, or plant next to a building

Fruit fails to mature; leaves are small. Vigorous new wood arises from base.

Low temperatures have killed some stem tissues

Cut tree back to ground level and grow a new top from suckers that arise.

Fruit sours and many split.

Unsuitable variety or unusually wet year.

Replace with a more suitable variety or pick immature fruit for preserves.

Fruit is tough and falls prematurely during hot dry weather.

Excessive heat.

No control; typical of some varieties such as Celeste


The following nurseries offer medium to large assortments of fig varieties. Listing is not an endorsement. We do not guarantee that you will be satisfied with any of their products or services.

Chestnut Hill Nursery, 15105 NW 94 Avenue, Alachua, FL 32615. 800 669-2067. Free catalog.

Edible Landscaping, P. O. Box 77, Afton, VA 22920. 800 524-4156. URL: Illustrated catalog free.

Fig Tree Nursery, P. O. Box 124, Gulf Hammock, FL 32639. 352 486-2930. Catalog $1.00.

Just Fruits, Route 2, Box 4818, Crawfordville, FL 32327. 904 926-5644. Free catalog.

Louisiana Nursery, Route 7, Box 43, Opelousas, LA 70570. 318 948-3696. Catalog $6.00.

Oregon Exotics, 1065 Messenger Road, Grants Pass, OR 97527. 503 846-7578. Illustrated catalog $3.00.

Peter Bauwen, Trompwegel 27, B9170 De Klinge, Belgium. Write for catalog information. (Figs can be legally imported in the U.S. with proper USDA import permits and quarantine.)

Raintree Nursery, 391 Butts Road, Morton, WA 98356. 360 496-6400. Illustrated catalog free.

Read's Nursery, Hales Hall, Loddon, Norfolk, NR14 6QW, Great Britain. 44 01508 548395. Write or call for catalog information. (Figs can be legally imported in the U.S. with proper USDA import permits and quarantine.)

Several NAFEX Fig Interest Groups members also sell figs on an amateur or casual sales basis:

Fred W. Born, 5715 W. Paul Bryant Drive, Crystal River, FL 34429-7523. 352 795-0489.

Bill Fogarty, 1035 S.E. Bell Avenue, Corvallis, OR 97333 541 758-5272.

Ray Givan, 2412 Lowground Road, Guyton, GA 31312. 912 728-4028. E-Mail to:

In addition to these commercial and amateur sources, the U. S. Department of Agriculture maintains a series of National Clonal Germplasm Repositories from which cuttings are available. The one at the University of California, Davis holds their fig resources. Their address is:

National Clonal Germplasm Repository, USDA-ARS

University of California

Davis, CA 95616916 752-6504 (voice) or 752-5974 (fax)

Suggested Reading

Bauwen, Peter and Kathelijne Thiers. Formen in Vijgen. De Klinge: 'De Nieuwe Tuin,' 1995.

Born, Fred and Ray Givan. The Fig Booklet. Self-published. 1996.

Condit, Ira J. "Fig Characteristics Useful in the Identification of Varieties" in Hilgardia, A Journal of Agricultural Science Published by the California Agricultural Experiment Station, Vol 14, No 1 (May 1941), 1-69.

Condit, Ira J. The Fig. Waltham, MA: Chronica Botanica, 1947.

Condit, Ira J. "Fig Varieties: A Monograph" in Hilgardia, A Journal of Agricultural Science Published by the California Agricultural Experiment Station, Vol. 23, No. 11 (Feb 1955), 322-538.

Eisen, Gustav. The Fig: Its History, Culture and Curing. Bulletin No 9, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1902.

Fishman, Ram. The Handbook for Fruit Explorers. Chapin, IL: North American Fruit Explorers, Inc., 1986.

Krezdorn, A. H. and G. W. Adriance. Fig Growing in the South. Agriculture Handbook No. 196. Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Dept of Agriculture, Jul 1968.

Puls, Earl, Jr. and E. N. O'Rourke. Figs for Commercial and Home Orchards in Louisiana. Publication 1529, Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, Jun 1985.

Starnes, H. N. The Fig in Georgia. Bulletin 61, Nov 1903. State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Experiment, Georgia.

Starnes, H. N. and J. F. Monroe. The Fig in Georgia - Second Report. 1907.

Storey, William B., Julius E. Enderrud, Wadie F. Saleeb, and Edward M. Nauer, The Fig. Jurupa Mountain Cultural Center, 1977.

Storey, William B. "Fig: Ficus carica (Moraceae)" in N. W. Simmonds, Editor, Evolution of Crop Plants. New York: Longman, 1976.

U. S. Department of Agriculture. Growing Figs in the South for Home Use, Home and Garden Bulletin No. 87.

Zohary, Daniel and Maria Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


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