White Russian Fig
Plant of the Week
White Russian Fig
Latin: Ficus Carica
Figs have lingered in the back of my consciousness since I was a child. Fig Newtons were offered up occasionally as snacks during the week, and on Sundays we were served up stories about the Garden of Eden and how fig leaves were used to clothe the nakedness of Adam and Eve. But, not being a child of the Deep South, it was years before I encountered my first fig tree.
The common fig (Ficus carica) is the most cold hardy of the 2,000 or so species of Ficus that grow as trees, shrubs and vines in tropical regions around the world. It’s a deciduous tree in the mulberry family that can reach 25 or 30 feet tall and wide. The original range of the tree was probably in western Asia from Turkey to India, but it has been grown in the Mediterranean region for at least 4,000 years. It came to the New World with the first Spanish explorers.
In subtropical areas, figs grow as low-branched, large, broad-spreading trees, but in colder areas it grows as a shrub. The branches are cold hardy to about 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but the roots remain alive as long as the soil does not freeze. If well mulched, figs can be grown as far north as zone 5. Even if the plants freeze to the ground, they will regrow to 8-feet in height and as tall and wide bushes by the end of the growing season.
Fig leaves are 8-10 inches long with five rounded lobes. Plants are dioecious (either male or female). The sexual parts of the flower are encased inside the inflated, teardrop shaped fruit that can be as much as 2½ inches long. In nature, a tiny wasp picks up pollen from male flowers and enters the female flowers through a small hole at the end of the fig. After pollination the insect dies inside the fruit and is absorbed. Most of the 700 or so fig cultivars are parthenocarpic and will set fruit even without the benefit of pollination.
In mild climates, most figs fruit twice a year. The first flush of flowers are borne on year-old branches and form what are known as “breba” figs. The main fig crop though is produced on new growth and forms later in the summer. So, even if plants freeze to the ground during winter, figs can still produce a crop. In areas with short growing seasons it may be advisable to remove any breba fruit that form because the main crop will not begin forming until the first crop matures.
According to a recent archeological find in the Jordan Valley, figs may be one of the earliest cultivated crops. In 2006, scientists reported on nine figs found in a Neolithic homesite that were dated to at least 11,200 years old. This predates the oldest finds of cereal grains from the Fertile Crescent by 1,000 years. The figs were so well preserved, researchers could tell they were a parthenocarpic clone, thus sterile. Sterile plants can only be maintained by intentional propagation.
Figs can be grown throughout Arkansas.
In the southern counties, they grow as small trees, but in the northern areas die to the ground during most winters. In colder areas they do best when planted on the south or west side of structures where the soil stays warmer during the winter. But remember, figs can produce a lot of fruit; unless they’re kept picked, decaying fruit will attract wasps, bees and flies so keep them away from entryways or patio areas.
Though figs are not particular about soil type, they grow best in good garden soils supplemented with abundant organic matter. They should be given full sun. Once established, figs have considerable drought tolerance, but excessive drought will reduce fruit yields.
There are over 700 fig cultivars listed but only about 50 are offered in the nursery trade in the United States. Unfortunately, name confusion reigns supreme amongst fig cultivars so don’t be surprised to see the same plant grown with several names.
Brown Turkey (also called Texas Everbearing), with its sweet but not overpowering purple-fleshed fruit, is probably the most common and cold hardy of the fig cultivars. Nero is another productive dark-fleshed clone well suited to the southeastern states. Blanche (also called White Russian) is a super-sweet yellow-green fleshed fig that is winter hardy. Conardia is similar in appearance with smaller fruit.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - August 1, 2008
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.