Steeped in the history and ritual of ancient cultures, and mentioned in both the Bible and the Koran, the fig is one of the most universally enjoyed fruits. It was one of the first plants cultivated by humans before wheat, barley, and legumes. Fig remnants were found in archaeological excavations from the town of Gilgal in the Jordan Valley dating back to 9300 BC. Native to Asia Minor, near Turkey, the fig spread beyond the Mediterranean area before recorded history.
Figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium, and are also high in fiber, which lowers blood pressure and controls cholesterol. Figs have a laxative effect and contain many antioxidants. There are many medicinal uses – roots are used to treat ringworm, and the fruits are useful in liver and spleen disorders, and also as a treatment for gout and hemorrhoids.
There are over 1,000 varieties of fig, many unnamed, and also four fig tree types, the Common, Caprifig, Smyrna, and Intermediate or San Pedro. The Common types grow best in Hawaiii because the flowers are all female and don’t require pollination. The other three types require a pollinator, the fig wasp, which is not found in Hawaii. They must either be cross pollinated with other types or self-pollinated.
Most places have two crops a year, the first (or breva) appears on last year’s growth, while the main fig crop develops on this year’s growth, and is considered superior in quality and quantity to the breva crop. Fig trees can get over 30 feet tall, but pruning severely can keep them within reach for ease of harvesting. In Hawaii’s lower elevations, with irrigation, fruits form continuously and should be pruned frequently, while at higher elevations, it can decrease to one to three crops per year.
The two main varieties for Hawaii have been Brown Turkey and White Kadota. However, the Twelve Trees Project in Kona is actively evaluating many new fig varieties.
Figs can be easily propagated by cuttings, or can be air layered for larger plants. Cut a stem about eight to 12 inches long and put it in a pot with perlite or a sandy soil mix, keeping it in a shady area with good moisture until it roots. Move to a very sunny spot and plant deep so more roots will emerge from the stem. Figs can survive drought, but can be grown in an intensive production system with drip irrigation and frequent pruning for optimal yields.
The biggest challenge in growing figs is fruit damage from birds, especially mynahs, meijiros, and cardinals which can range from 30-50 percent. The use of mylar tape, old CDs, and other bird deterrents have decreased damage down to 5-10 percent. Root-knot nematodes are also a problem. Fig can grow in marginal land, such as rocky slopes.
Fruits are harvested when soft to the touch. However, gloves should be used when harvesting since sap from the stem end contains latex that can cause skin irritation. Figs can be eaten fresh, dried, and used in jam making and sauces. A popular cookie, Fig Newtons, are made with dried figs. Delicate sauces and even won tons are made from figs, mixing them with feta cheese.
Turkey is the world leader in fig production, followed by Egypt, but many southern states also grow figs. You can grow your own figs, or just head to the store for some Fig Newtons.