The information which follows is reprinted from the Cyclopedia of American Horticulture by Liberty Hyde Bailey copyright 1900. SFJ regularly reprints older agricultural information for its pertinence, historical value and clarity. So called ‘enterprise data’ currently circulated on crops presumes we small farmers are dead and gone or worse blithering idiots. LRM
Fig is Ficus Carica, a native of Asia. It is a warm-temperate fruit, although it will stand 10 to 20 degrees of frost under favorable conditions. It was early introduced into North America, but excepting on the Pacific coast it has never been more than an amateur fruit. It has been known to fruit in the open in Michigan without other protection than a high board fence enclosure, but usually if grown north of Philadelphia the plants are lifted in early November, with good balls of earth, kept in a dryish cellar over winter, and planted out the next spring. From Philadelphia to the Carolinas they may be bent to the ground and covered with earth or pine boughs. The fruit is borne on the young wood, and often on young trees. This fruit is really a hollow pear-shaped receptacle with many minute seeds (botanically fruits) on the inside; it grows like a branch from the side of the shoot. Inferior, run-wild forms are frequent in the southern states, where they are sometimes called “old man and woman”. Figs may be grown under glass, being planted permanently in a border after the manner of hothouse grapes. They usually bear better if the branches are trained more or less horizontally. Two or more crops may be expected in one year under glass. Eastern nurserymen sell Fig trees. As early as 1833 Kenrick (“New American Orchardist”) described 23 varieties. Popular varieties for amateur cultivation in the east are Turkey, White Genoa, Black and Brown Ischia. In order to facilitate the ripening of the fruit in cool climates or under glass, it is a custom to dress the surface of the nearly full grown Figs with sweet oil. As a dessert fruit Figs are usually eaten in the fresh state, in which condition they are scarcely known to people in cool climates. They are also cooked. The commercial Fig is the dried fruit.
The Fig is propagated very easily from hardwood cuttings, as grapes are. Take cuttings in the fall, cutting just below a bud. If wood is scarce, single-eye cuttings may be used, being started preferably in a frame. From cuttings, bearing plants may be expected in 2 to 4 years. New varieties are obtained from seeds.
Various fruit books give directions for the growing of Figs. Publications in California and of the United States Department of Agriculture discuss them. But the only independent American writing seems to be James T. Worthington’s “Manual of Fig Culture in the Northern and Middle States,” Chillicothe, Ohio, 1869. Although regularly copyrighted, it is a pamphlet of only 10 pages. It recommends the laying-down of the trees in late fall and covering them with earth. This practice gave better results than covering with other material, or carrying the trees over winter in cellars, either in tubs or transplanted from the open.
Incident to the commercial cultivation of Figs in California, there has been much discussion of the necessity of caprification of fertilization by means of the Fig wasp. The necessity for caprification, as well as the nature of the process, was first established by Dr. Gustav Eisen; see “Biological Studies on Figs, Caprifigs and Caprification” (Proc. Cal. Acad. Sci. Ser. 2, Vol. V. 1896). In this paper Dr. Eisen demonstrates for the first time that there are three distinct classes of edible Figs, those which here have been termed Smyrniaca, Hortensis and Intermedia, and that some of these required caprification and others not. Another point established by him was that caprification was entirely a process of pollination, and not due to the sting of the Fig insects, as had been previously held by certain investigators. In this and other Fig work, the United States Department of Agriculture has taken an active part. Dr. Howard, U.S. Entomologist, has done much towards introducing the wasp. As early as 1890, H. E. Van Deman, then U.S. Polomogist, introduced a few cuttings of the Smyrna Fig and large quantities of the Capri, and these were distributed in the Fig-growing sections of the country. The Smyrna Fig was first hand-pollinated in 1891 by Dr. Eisen at Niles, Calif. The wasp was introduced several times without success, but the Department of Agriculture took hold of the matter in 1898, and in 1899 succeeded in establishing the insect (sent from Algeria by Mr. Swingle) in Mr. Roeding’s orchard at Fresno, Calif.
Fig Culture in the Carolinas. – Enthusiasm in regard to Fig culture in the eastern part of the country has been very much dampened by the two or three severe winter spells of late years. Several methods of winter protection have been tried. A plan, which was so successful in northern Maryland, of bending them down and mounding with earth, will not do in North Carolina and southward. If the soil froze up and remained frozen, as it does in northern Maryland, it would be all right. But here there is more warm than cold weather in winter, and during the warm and wet spells the buried branches simply rot, and are worse off in the spring then those to which no protection is given. In normal winters most varieties of Figs get along very well without protection, but when the mercury drops to 10 degrees or 12 degrees above zero, even if the wood escapes, the early crop is destroyed. When the trees are branched in bush form from the ground, the best protection here is to bend them down to the ground and cover thickly with green pine boughs. If in standard shape and kept pruned so, the best method of all is to thatch the entire tree with corn stalks and broom sedge, placing a thick layer of corn stalks upright around the body of the trees, and tying them in closely at the top and banking the earth up against the butts, and then to thatch every limb separately with broom sedge, tying as we go. The trees come out in better shape from this than from any other mode of protection. There is a great deal of difference in the natural hardiness of the different varieties. The Celestial is one of the hardiest. Doree Narbus is reputed the hardiest in California, but was killed outright here. Next to Celestial comes the Brown Turkey, the Brunswick and Pegustrata. Adriatic is too tender to be of any use in Northern Carolina. Station Smyrna, from the California Station, seems to be almost as hardy as the Celestial. A few years ago Brown Turkey Figs were plentiful in the Raleigh market at 75 cents per bushel, but for two or three years past hardly any have been offered. – W.F. Massey.
Fig in California. – The Fig, a native of southwestern Asia, is one of the most ancient, beautiful and valuable of all fruit trees, and its more general culture in suitable districts of the United States is much to be desired. There are several recognized botanical varieties of the Fig (Ficus Carica), of which the following can be noted: (1) Ficus Carica, var. sylvestris, the wild Fig of Asia Minor, commonly called the Capri Fig. The fruit of this kind is not edible, but the little Fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes) breeds therein. (2) Ficus Carica, var. Symrniaca, the true Smyrna Fig, which does not mature its fruit unless the flowers are cross-pollinated by hand or by the friendly agency of the Blastophaga, which pollinating is termed caprification. (3) Figus Carica, var. hortensis, the common Fig of gardens and orchards. (4) Ficus Carica, var. intermedia, a type of Fig which matures one crop, but needs cross-pollination for the main, or second crop.
The last three of the above four botanical varieties of Figs, especially the third, have become the parents of many horticultural forms. The best drying Figs of commerce belong to the second class, Smyrniaca, while nearly all of the fine table and preserving sorts are varieties of hortensis. Nearly all cultivated varieties of Figs yield three crops, more or less distinct according to the variety, the location and the season. The second crop is the important one, but the first crop in some varieties is much esteemed for table use. Ripe Figs can be gathered in many California Fig orchards from late in July until rains and frost destroy the fruit.
Figs have been grown on the Pacific coast for much more than a century. Trees were probably at Loreto Mission, Lower California, before 1710, and reached the Alta California Missions soon after their establishment. Vancouver found Fig trees at Santa Clara in 1792. At the present time the Fig is cultivated in almost all parts of the state of California. The tree stands a range of temperature of from 18 degrees to 120 degrees Fahr., and the only portions of California really unsuited to its growth are certain cold or foggy districts. In the drier parts of the state it needs irrigation, as do other fruit trees. Some of the old Fig trees in California are of immense size. It is not uncommon to see trees with trunks of more than 2 feet in diameter. One tree in Stanislaus county is 60 feet in height, covers a circle 70 feet across, and has a trunk that girths 9 feet. The great Banyan-like Fig tree at General Bidwell’s, Butte county has trailing or descending branches, which have taken root at many places, and the whole group now covers a circle more than 150 feet in diameter.
Varieties. – There are many horticultural varieties of the Fig, probably not less then 150 distinct sorts in cultivation under innumerable synonyms. Their classification is by shape, color of skin and color of flesh. The shape is round or turbinate in some sorts; pyriform or obovate in others. The skin varies in color in different varieties from green, through pale yellow, buff, light brown, reddish brown and purple, to black. The flesh is almost white, opaline, or various shades of red; it can be described as melting, spicy, juicy, coarse or even dry in a few old sorts which seem but a few removes from the wild. The size varies from sorts hardly as large as a green-gage plum to others that sometimes weigh 4 or 5 ounces apiece. The Fig most often planted in California came from the old Missions, and is known as California Black, a hardy and very productive sort. Properly dried it is an excellent fig, but the dark color renders it less marketable than the white varieties. It is a very popular table Fig. The white Fig most generally planted in California is the so-called “White Adriatic,” which is the “Grosse Verte” of France and the “Nebian” of Hogg. The best dried Figs yet produced commercially in California are of this variety, which does not need caprification. There is a large and increasing demand for California dried Figs, which are not yet equal in quality to the Smyrna product, but can be sold at a lower price.
The following 25 varieties of Fig are now freely cultivated in California, and extensively grown by the nurseries: Adriactic (Grosse Verte), Agen, Angelique, Black Ischia, Black Marseilles (Black Provence or Reculver), Bourjassote Blanc, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, California Black, Capri, Celeste (Celestine), Col di Signora Nero, Drap d’Or, Du Roi, Grossale, Ladaro, Negro Largo, Ronde Noire, Ronde Violette Hative, Royal Vineyard, San Pedro, Smyrna, White Genoa (Grosse Marseilles), White Ischia, White Marseilles (Petite Marseilles). The California Experiment Station has grown at various places the above 25 varieties, and, in addition, about 35 others, thus testing a collection of some 60 sorts, and these have been widely distributed for 6 or 8 years. The list includes Abondance Precoce, Brianzola, Black Brogiatto, Bellona, Bordeaux, Brown Ischia, Dalmatian, Doree Narbus, Rocardi, Rubrado, Verdal Longe, 3 varieties of Smyrna, Osborne Prolific, Pastiliere and an especially fine variety. Hirta du Japon, a medium-sized, turbinate, dark purple Fig with yellowish white flesh and high quality. This last named variety, with Angelique, Early Violet, Brown Turkey and a few others, is excellent for house culture or forcing. The best sources in France, Spain and Italy have been drawn upon for the various importations of Figs upon which these collections are based.
Acreage. – About 5,000 acres of land in California have been planted in Figs, mostly in small tracts seldom exceeding 20 acres. The leading Fig counties, as far as area is concerned, are Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Butte and Fresno, but the counties of Alameda, Santa Clara, Solano, Sacramento, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Placer, Yuba, El Dorado and Shasta contain some of the finest groves and specimen trees.
The Smyrna Figs. – After many attempts, the true Smyrna Figs were introduced on quite an extensive scale by the San Francisco Bulletin in 1882, by the late James Shinn, and by George Roeding, of Fresno. From these different importations, California became well stocked with both the Capri and Smyrniaca types. The Fig wasp was obtained in July, 1891, by James Shinn, but the locality was unsuited to its propagation. It was again introduced at various times by the United States Department of Agriculture and by Mr. Roeding, until it now seems to be fairly well established at Fresno. The Smyrna Fig was first hand-pollinated in 1891 at Niles and also for several seasons at Fresno, producing Figs which when dried were of superior quality. In 1899 Mr. Roeding’s Smyrna Figs, caprified by the little Fig wasp, bore a Fig crop. Several large orchards of the true Smyrna Figs, in various varieties, and many Capri Fig trees are ready for colonies of this useful blastophaga, and it is hoped that a new industry can now be developed in various parts of California.
Propagation. – The Fig grows very readily from cuttings. Use well ripened wood of the previous season’s growth, cut at the joint, and give them the same treatment required for grape cuttings. They will even grow from single-eye cuttings. Bottom heat is not necessary in California, where the cuttings are set in the nursery in December or January, and are ready for the orchard in a year. In the eastern states, winter-made cuttings can be started with bottom heat, or in the open air in April.
Budding is best done by the annular or ring method so useful for the chestnut and walnut. The Fig can be cleft-grafted, say in February in California, but extreme care must be taken to exclude the air. Seedlings are easily grown from the fertile seeds of the imported Smyrna Figs, and from the few fertile seeds occasionally appearing in common varieties.
Planting, Culture, etc. – The Fig tree in California requires much space, hence it is used as an avenue tree, or if in orchard form other trees are set between, to be afterwards removed. In good soil Fig trees, like walnuts, should finally stand not less than 40 feet apart.
Little pruning is required for the Fig. Trees grown for table Figs are headed low, about 18 inches from the ground, to facilitate picking. Trees grown for drying Figs are headed higher, so that the ground can better be kept smooth and clean, for the figs are usually allowed to ripen and fall. Cultivation is necessary until the trees completely shade the ground.
Figs begin to bear early in California, often the second or third year. Some trees prove barren, or very poor bearers, and must be replaced by others. Cuttings for propagation should always be taken from well-matured wood of bearing trees. The tree appears to be as long-lived as the olive, has very few insect enemies, and is not subject to disease. The fruit in some districts in some seasons ferments on the trees (“Fig-sour”). This sometimes seems to come from over irrigation, sometimes from lack of vitality, and more often occurs with very juicy and tender varieties.
Caprification. – The problems connected with Fig caprification have long been discussed, and the necessity for the process has been strenuously denied by many writers. But there is no doubt that Figs of the true Smyrna type cast their Figs unless caprified, for old trees are now growing in California and bear no crop. Cases otherwise reported prove to be of some different, or hortensis, variety.
The true Smyrna Figs, which are of several varieties, and doubtless capable of much improvement, yield two crops, the first of which fails, because no pollen is then obtainable from the wild or Capri trees. Both earlier and later varieties of wild Figs than we now have are needed by horticulturists. The wild Fig now produces three crops, but only one is useful for caprification; the others are barren of pollen, but are necessary to maintain the Fig wasp. Only 30 Capri Figs are needed to caprify a large Fig tree, so abundant are the insects and the pollen in good seasons, and one tree of the wild fig is sufficient for one hundred smyrna trees. The male of the Fig wasp is without wings, but the female has wings and saw-like mandibles; she cuts her way through scales which interlock over the apex of the half grown Smyrna Fig. She loses her wings in entering, dies in the Fig, and is absorbed by the vegetable cells; if her eggs are deposited they also perish, and the continuance of the species depends upon those individuals that remain upon the wild Fig trees. The whole story is one of the most interesting known to entomologists.
Fig-drying in California. – The foreign methods so far as tested in California are not practicable under labor conditions, and not entirely satisfactory in any case. Some growers let Figs fall from the trees, picking such as shrivel on the trees without dropping; others let all the Figs fall. Picking is best with the finer sorts. Allow the Figs to shrivel on the trees; pick with great care, place on slat trays, bloom-end down, and subject to sulphur fumes, if bleaching is desired. Expose to the sun; turn the fruit over in an hour or so, and the next day begin to “Fig-pull,” or press each Fig between the fingers to keep it from “drying hard.” In 4 or 5 days the Figs can be placed in the shade, and in a day or two “dipped” in boiling water, to further reduce the coarseness of the skin, close the pores and color the fruit. Subsequent sweating and “processing” vary much as with prunes, raisins and other dried fruits. Exceeding care, cleanliness and long experience are all-important in the production of a high-grade article.
The dried Fig crop of California is large, and increasing. In 1886 the total product was but 100,000 pounds. In the 5 years ending with 1899 it was 14,945,000 pounds, an average of 2,989,000 pounds per annum. White Adriatic, Black Californian and to a small extent White Marseilles were the varieties producing this amount.
Culture in the eastern states. – The culture of the Fig in the northern and middle parts of the United States is extremely interesting, but is essentially different from California methods, or even from those prevailing in the southern states. The tree is not hardy enough to endure the climate excepting when grown as a bush, and protected in winter, usually by covering it with several inches of soil. In the southern middle states a heavy covering of straw or of evergreen branches is often sufficient. The first crop of fruit is all that can usually be expected in the extreme north; the second crop sometimes ripens in the middle states.
South of Virginia, many varieties of Fig are readily grown in the open ground. The experiments of Berckmans, Massey, Normand, Reasoner and others plainly show that the Fig is well adapted to a large area of the southern states, but chiefly for table use – not for drying, which seems to require a less moist summer atmosphere. The Fig cannot be carried far to market in a fresh state, and therefore its extended cultivation to supply local demands will long be profitable. Even in California the fruit markets are with difficulty kept supplied, and many large towns seldom have fresh Figs on the stands. – Charles H. Shinn