The relationship between mankind and the fig tree goes back to the dawn of recorded history and beyond, and has played a significant role in both the agricultural and religious development of the human race. In Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition Adam and Eve – the first residents of the planet – used fig leaves to cover themselves when they realized they were naked. In the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama – more commonly referred to as the Buddha – is believed to have found enlightenment after sitting beneath a fig tree (known as the Bodhi, or Tree of Enlightenment) for more than a month; the first thing he did after becoming enlightened was to thank the tree for its shade.
Botanically, fig trees are the predominant member of the Ficus genus in the Moraceae – better known as the mulberry – family of flowering trees, bushes, and shrubs. They are believed to be native to Western Asia and the Middle East, and today are grown both for their fruit and as an ornamental plant throughout the world in hot and temperate climates. Some varieties are quite hardy and adaptable and can be grown in moderately cold climates, leading to its worldwide popularity as an ornamental plant. The most popular types of fig trees will grow to between 15 and 35 feet tall (although some varieties can be ‘trained’ to grow to only 10 feet, most often through container planting) and produce large, beautifully formed, fragrant leaves and a heavily seeded, sweet fruit known as a fig. Most types of fig trees produce two crops of figs each season – one small crop (known as the breba) in the spring, and the main crop in the fall.
Fig trees were among the first – if not the first – plants actively cultivated by humans. Archeological evidence suggests that figs were cultivated near Jericho in the Jordan Valley in the early Neolithic Age over 12,000 years ago – pre-dating the cultivation of wheat by millennia – and they were an important commodity in the establishment of trade in the ancient world. They were widely cultivated throughout the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires and spread throughout Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe relatively quickly through trade and conquest. Figs were brought to the New World by the Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, and to what is now the US State of California by Spanish missionaries in the mid-1700s.
Today, about 1.2 million metric tons of figs are commercially cultivated worldwide with Turkey accounting for just over 25 percent of the total, followed by Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Iran. In the United States, which ranks 8th and accounts for about 43,000 tons per year, almost all commercial production occurs in California.
Horticulturalists divide fig trees into 4 basic categories based on how they are pollinated: Common, Smyrna, San Pedro, and Caprifig. Common fig trees are self-pollinating, and make up the majority of the most popular commercial and ornamental cultivars; Smyrna and San Pedro varieties are either entirely (Smyrna) or partially (San Pedro) dependant on pollination by the Caprifig, which is carried out by the fig wasp, for which the Caprifig is the host. Caprifig varieties generally do not produce edible fruit and are cultivated solely to pollinate other trees.
Figs – the fruit of the tree – are generally categorized by their color, which will normally range from green and yellow to brown, purple, and black. Most commercially cultivated figs are dried or made into jams or paste (like what you will find inside a Fig Newton cookie); figs do not have a particularly long shelf life and do not ship well, and so are often not offered for sale fresh outside of the immediate area in which they are grown. Figs are relatively high in fiber and potassium as well as vitamins B1, 5, 6, and K.
So what are some of the most commonly grown fig trees in the world today?
Among the most popular types of figs with both commercial and home growers, Brown Turkey is believed to have originated in Southern France near the city of Provence. Also called the Aubique Noir and Negro Largo, Brown Turkey is widely commercially cultivated throughout Southern Europe, India, the Mediterranean, parts of Central America, and the US state of California. It is also very popular with home growers throughout Europe and the lower half of the United States (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 – 10).
A relatively hardly tree that can survive exposure to temperatures well below freezing for short periods of time, Brown Turkey will normally grow to between 15 and 25 feet tall and up to 15 feet wide. The trees produce large, interestingly shaped leaves that stay a bright shade of green year-round in the warmer climates it prefers. As a Common variety of fig, the tree is self-pollinating and will usually produce two crops of figs per year. The figs themselves are normally fairly large, have a brownish-purple skin and a pink to rose-colored flesh with fewer seeds than some other figs. They have a relatively mild flavor with a hint of hazelnuts and are less sweet than some other popular varieties. As long as it is not exposed to prolonged periods of below-freezing weather Brown Turkey is quite easy to grow and requires very little care and maintenance. It is also particularly adaptable to container growing and heavy pruning, making it a quite popular deck and patio plant.
Also called the Kadota (in the United States) and White Endich, the Dottato is another Common variety of fig tree that equals – and may even surpass – Brown Turkey in worldwide commercial importance. Believed to have originated in Southern Italy, it is also one of the oldest fig varieties on record, having been described in detail by the ancient Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder around 60 AD. The Dottato is widely commercially grown throughout Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, and the United States where it currently makes up about 20 percent of California’s annual fig crop. The tree can be grown as an ornamental in USDA Zones 7 – 11.
Not quite as cold tolerant as Brown Turkey but more adaptable to persistent heat, the Dottato tree will normally grow to between 15 and 25 feet tall and 12 to 15 feet wide. The leaves tend to be a dark green while the medium size slightly flattened fruit has a thick greenish-yellow skin, deep amber and white pulp and flesh, and relatively few seeds. The flavor is quite sweet and rich, and the fig is used throughout the world to make preserves and paste (in the United States, the Kadota variant is one of the main types of figs used in the production of Fig Newton cookies); they also stand up to drying and freezing well. Generally speaking, Dottato figs produce two large crops per year and will develop a better texture and richer flavor when the tree is grown in consistently hotter environments, making it a popular ornamental in the American South and Southwest, Southern Europe, and parts of Australia.
Also called the Black Mission and the Franciscana (in much of the world outside the US) the Mission originated in Southern Spain and was introduced to California by Spanish Franciscan missionaries; it is believed to have been first planted at the mission in San Diego by Father Junipero Sero in 1769. Once the most widely grown commercial fig in the US (until it was supplanted by the Calimyrna – discussed below) it is still commercially grown in California, as well its native Spain, Portugal, Brazil, New Zealand, and Israel. The tree has very little tolerance for cold and virtually none for frost and grows best as an ornamental in USDA Zones 7 – 10.
The Mission is one of the larger fig tree varieties, often reaching 35 feet tall and spreading to between 20 and 30 feet wide in an open orchard; it is, however, quite amenable to heavy pruning and container growing and can be easily kept to around 10 feet tall when used as an ornamental. A Common self-pollinating variety, the Mission is a heavy producer of very large (normally about 3 inches long and over 2 inches in diameter) pear-shaped figs that ripen at varying times throughout the growing season (accounting for their commercial popularity). The ripe figs have a fairly thick dark purple, almost black skin; a pink to strawberry-red, moderately-seeded flesh; and a higher than average sugar content giving them a very sweet, fruity flavor. They are often dried, stand up to canning and cooking well, and are excellent for fresh applications, including eating out of hand.
Commonly called the Sari Lop outside of North and Central America, the Calimyrna fig tree is native to Turkey where it has been cultivated for centuries and is still widely grown there as well as throughout the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. It is currently the most commercially important fig tree in the United States and the most widely grown type in California where it was introduced in the 1860s. A member of the Smyrna category of fig trees, the Calimyrna requires the presence of the Caprifig (and its attendant fig wasp) to pollinate it in order to bear fruit, severely limiting its value as an ornamental. Suitable for USDA Zones 7 – 9, the tree grows to around 25 feet tall and spreads 15 to 20 feet. It produces two crops per year, although the first (breba) crop is sometimes small and can be of inferior quality. The main crop produces relatively large, firm fruit with a yellowish-green skin which will turn a rich golden tan when dried. The strawberry-red to amber flesh is rich and sweet, while the numerous crunchy seeds give the fig a distinctly nutty flavor. The figs are most commonly dried or eaten fresh, and used in making jams and compotes.
Also known as the Malta, Celestial, Tennessee Mountain, and Sugar Fig, the Celeste is one of the most widely grown ornamental fig trees in North America and, more recently, Western Europe. Probably native to the Mediterranean region, the original Celeste tree has been ‘improved’ throughout the last century (much of the work being done at Louisiana State University) with the result being one of the more cold-resistant fig trees you are likely to find. Suitable for USDA Zones 6 – 10 (and container planting even further north and into Canada) and able to withstand temperatures below 10F for short periods, the Celeste tree is quite small, normally only reaching between 6 and 10 feet tall and spreading 6 to 8 feet wide. A Common, self-pollinating variety, the Celeste produces small to medium size roundish fruit with a tapering neck, fairly thin light brown to purple skin, and a heavily seeded pink to amber flesh with a rich, intensely honey-sweet, slightly nutty taste. The fig is good for fresh eating, drying, and use in preserves and jams, although it is not good for most cooked applications as the fruit will not hold together. The Celeste is not grown on a commercial basis outside of the Southeastern United States, and they’re only on a limited basis.
Also called the White Marseilles, Saint Anthony and Lemon, the Marseilles is (not surprisingly) native to Southern France and was first introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson upon his return from serving as Ambassador to France in the late 1780s. A Common variety, the tree is widely grown throughout the Southern United States, has some cold-hardiness, and is suitable for home growers in USDA Zones 6 – 9. Another relatively small tree the Marseilles will usually grow to between 8 and 12 feet tall with a 10-foot spread, and is very amenable to both pruning and container growing, making it a favorite for decks and patios. The fruit is roundish and medium to large in size with a thin lemon-yellow skin and light amber to off-white flesh containing large, soft seeds. Marseilles figs have a higher than average sugar content and a very sweet only slightly nutty flavor; they are excellent for fresh eating, drying, and are often used to make jams and preserves.
Also called the Verdone, Gross Verte, White Adriatic, Chico, and Strawberry, the Adriatic fig tree is native to the central part of Italy and was brought to the United States at the end of the Civil War in 1865. At one time it was the most widely used fig in commercial dried fig production, before being supplanted by the Calimyrna near the turn of the 20th Century. A Common, self-pollinating variety that has some resistance to cold, the tree will grow to between 15 and 25 feet tall with a 15 to 20-foot spread and is appropriate for USDA Zones 7 – 9. The Adriatic is known for its very large, deep green leaves and produces fairly heavy crops of medium to large fruit with a yellowish-green, easy to peel skin and a moderately seeded, soft, very sweet strawberry-red flesh and pulp. The figs are most often eaten fresh, dried, or used in jams and preserves. The Adriatic is widely grown in the Western and lower Northwestern United States, its native Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.
Bred by Dr. Ira J. Condit at the University of California, Riverside, and released to the market in 1956, the Conadria is the first successful fig variety to be created by mankind in a targeted selective breeding program. A hybrid of the Adriatic and the Capri (a species of Caprifig), the Conadria is a small tree that will grow 8 to 10 feet tall with a 6 to 8 foot spread that is suitable for USDA Zones 7 – 10 and grows particularly well in its native California and the Southern US. Considered a Common variety, the Conadria is self-pollinating and produces two crops of relatively large figs with a yellowish-green to white skin and a rose-colored, moderately seeded flesh with a rich and sweet flavor. The fig is good for drying and fresh eating, although the flavor will not stand up particularly well to cooking.
Despite its very American-sounding name, the Hardy Chicago fig is a native of Sicily and is grown throughout Central Europe as well as much of the United States. Perhaps the most cold-hardy (accounting for the name) of all Common fig species, the Hardy Chicago can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (albeit for short periods of time) without major damage and is suitable for planting in USDA Zones 5 – 10. Very popular as an ornamental in colder areas, the tree will usually grow to between 20 and 30 feet tall and spread up to 20 feet. A high-yielding tree, the fruit is medium size with a relatively thin brown to purple skin and moderately sweet, slightly nutty strawberry-colored flesh. Good for most traditional fig uses, the Hardy Chicago will break apart when used in cooked applications.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.