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Ask a Master Gardener: Figs for the Upper Gulf Coast

By: Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey, Mobile County Master Gardener,

Ficus carica 'BrownTurkey' Doug McAbee, CC NY-NC 2.0

Many Mobilians have fond memories of snacking on sweet figs in a tree in their grandparents’ or neighbor’s yard. One can still frequently spot fig trees in yards around town. And why not: a fig tree is easy to grow, needs little maintenance, and given that most are probably a Common fig, do not require a pollinator. 

The fig (Ficus carica L.) is an ancient fruit often noted in history: mentioned no less than fifty times in the Bible, representing signs of both prosperity and judgment. Its Biblical prominence is not surprising given its Mediterranean origins. Figs prefer that region’s climate of dry, hot summers with mild, wet winters. When Adam and Eve were hiding in the Garden, the fig leaf was the only haute couture they could find.

The fig is actually an inverted flower that contains tiny seeds. The Upper Gulf Coast is hot enough to grow figs, (We’ve recently graduated to USDA Hardiness Zone 9a.) but we typically have humid and hot summers, not dry. Figs that do well in California with its dry Mediterranean climate may not do well along the Gulf Coast. We’ll look at varieties that successfully grow here, like Celeste, Brown Turkey, and Texas Everbearing, as well as lesser known but good-tasting varieties such as Smith, Alma, and Hunt varieties and recommend a few newer varieties.

Louisiana State University has been leading in the development of new fig varieties for several years. Professor Ed O’Rourke and other LSU Ag researchers in the 50’s and 60’s created several fig varieties based on the Celeste fig as it is the most tried and true for our climate, given its good rain resistance. Many of those figs were not released until the 90’s. Some of the more well-known figs from the program are LSU Gold, LSU Purple, O’Rourke, LSU Tiger panache fig, LSU Champagne, LSU Improved Celeste, LSU Scott’s Black, LSU Scott’s Yellow, LSU Red, and LSU Hollier. About 20 varieties of LSU figs have been released and are widely grown, and development continues. Most fig enthusiasts, especially in the Deep South, consider the LSU figs the standard for quality.

Another major plus for growing figs is that they can be propagated easily. Take a six-inch long cutting as thick as your index finger in late winter or early spring, put it 3-4 inches deep in soil in a pot and wait a couple of months for it to leaf out and develop roots. Leaves will burst out first but allow more time for the roots to become established to sustain growth. Be patient.

The fruits grow on the season’s new green growth, but some varieties also have what is called a “Breba” crop, growing early on old wood before the main crop fruits. Our Upper Gulf Coast USDA hardiness zones 8a-9b allow plenty of heat to ripen most fig varieties before the first frost. If you have figs that may not ripen before the cold sets in, pinch off the top bud at the end of the branch so the plant’s energy will focus on ripening existing figs rather than adding new fruit.

What if you find yourself too successful and have a bigger bounty than you know what to do with?  Among homesteaders and permaculture enthusiasts, there is no such thing as too great a harvest, just lack of creativity in utilizing it. Figs can be eaten fresh, but also can be dried (Some air-fryers offer that setting option.) The most popular and simplest way to process them has been making old-fashioned fig preserves (without need of pectin), using the whole fig, minus the stem section. Recipes abound online, and usually involve equal weights of fresh figs and sugar with some lemon juice and a slow boil. Standard water-bath canning equipment will do the trick, and your breakfast biscuits won’t be alone this winter.

Fig lovers can be quite fanatical in their obsession, on par with wine connoisseurs, waxing eloquent about the flavor “notes” a fig may possess. Several major flavor profiles such as Honey, Sugar, and Berry, with all manner of in-betweens and combinations, may have quite complex notes.

Honey figs are typically yellow or gold figs and are often described as having tones of vanilla, peach, sweet nectar, and honey. LSU Gold, Kadota, White Marseilles, and Peter’s Honey figs are a few that fit that bill.

Sugar figs like Celeste, Brown Turkey, and LSU O’Rourke are usually brown figs and carry hints of melon, caramel, and light brown sugar. Most dark colored figs are Berry figs and are said to have a more “fruity” flavor profile, commonly compared to strawberry jam, raspberry, blackberry, spice, cinnamon, or various dried fruits. Some Berry figs have a light exterior and a darker interior. Violet de Bordeaux, LSU Purple, and Black Mission figs are berry-type figs.

With thousands of fig cultivars out there, the wide variety of combinations make for some complex and intriguing flavors, enough to serve any discerning palate.  So don’t delay. There is still time to get fig trees in the ground on the Upper Gulf Coast.

Editor’s Note: Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey is a Certified Permaculture Designer and serves on the Board of Dog River Clearwater Revival.

LSU Gold makes large golden fruit. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard, LSU AgCenter

LSUPurple. Photo Credit Jason Stagg, LSU AgCenter

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