Figs originate from the geographic area extending from North Africa and the Mediterranean to Western Asia. Nowadays, the tree is cultivated for its fruit well beyond its native range in many regions of the world.
It is typically a small tree 3 to 5 m (10 to 16 ft) tall, though under favourable conditions may reach heights of up to 10 m (30 ft) or more, and in warm climates it fast-growing. The trunk is usually short with silvery-grey bark and supports a wide-spreading crown, sometimes wider than the tree is tall.
The leaves are large, up to 25 cm (10 in) long and equally as wide, deeply lobed, dark green, rough on top and finely haired underneath. They are deciduous, falling off the tree during seasonally dry or cool weather, with the branches left bare and the tree remaining dormant until warmth and moisture arrive to encourage new growth.
The flowers are not visible on the tree, as they are held inside what is commonly referred to as the fruit, which is actually a receptacle for the flowers and the real fruit. They become visible when the fig is cut in half, showing up as tiny, thread-like filaments pointing inward toward the hollow centre, with the true fruit being the tiny black specks that develop at the tips.
Figs come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes, but are usually pear-shaped, around the size of a large lime to average lemon and are green to yellow or deep purple when ripe, depending on the variety, of which there are hundreds. They ripen in summer in temperate climates, but the fruiting season is somewhat longer in warmer areas and may extend into early autumn, or start earlier in late spring.
Figs are well-known and widely eaten in many countries around the world, usually as fresh fruit or in various preserved forms, including dried fruit, jam and other types of preserves.
The stems on wounding yield a milky latex that has long been collected and used as a coagulant, particularly to curdle milk for cheese-making. It is a credible, vegetarian substitute for rennet, which is traditionally obtained from the stomach lining of cattle.
The latex is collected early in the morning when the yields and enzyme activity are at their highest. It is reported to be many times more effective than conventional rennet in its curdling action on milk.
The leaves are palatable to ruminant livestock and have a reported crude protein content of around 14% of dry weight but must be harvested fresh, before they begin to yellow.
Fig latex mixed with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) can be given orally to treat intestinal worms in humans. The latex contains the enzyme Ficin, which has a protein-dissolving action that kills some species of worm. The dried fruit contain high levels of Vitamin K, as well as Calcium.
Although naturally adapted to climates with cold winters, fig trees do not have a requirement for chilling to break dormancy like apple and pear trees do. However, the fruit are highly susceptible to fungal disease brought on by hot, humid tropical conditions, particularly in the spring and summer when the tree flowers and fruits.
It produces fair to good quality fruit in sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and tropical mid- to high-elevation climates, generally areas with annual lows of 10 to 19 °C, annual highs of 22 to 34 °C, annual rainfall of 700 to 1400 mm and a dry season of 8 months or less.
Figs can also be produced in hot, arid areas with annual rainfall of less than 700 mm if irrigated, as well as in areas with annual rainfall above 1400 mm if the rains fall in autumn to winter and the spring to summer period is relatively dry, such as occurs in the Hawaiian islands. However, spring to summer rainfall is more often the norm in subtropical and tropical areas.
New plants are usually started from cuttings, but air-layering or circumposing techniques can also be used, with varying success. Vegetatively propagated plants start bearing fruit at around two to three years old.
Good results have been obtained with cuttings of mature bud-wood around one to three years old, 1 to 1.5 cm (0.4 to 0.6 in) in diameter and 30 cm (12 in) in length. These are taken from selected trees in the spring, dipped cut end in a rooting hormone and placed in seedling containers with a moistened, free-draining potting mix. They are then covered, both cuttings and container, with a clear plastic pavilion and are kept in a sheltered, shaded place until they have developed a good root system, after which they are transplanted to the garden or orchard.
Non-pollinated varieties and those that have a closed or small eye-opening at the base of the fruit are recommended for tropical areas. Fruit with a large eye-opening encourages the development of fungal disease and are therefore not suitable.
Some non-pollinated, small- to closed-eye varieties that have given good results in the tropics include: 'Black genoa', 'Black mission', 'Brown turkey', 'Excel', 'Flanders', 'Kadota', 'LSU Gold', 'Osborn prolific', 'Prestons prolific', 'Rattlesnake island', 'White kadota', 'White Texas', 'Violette de Bordeaux' and 'Petite Negra'.
The tree performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 8.5 and on sites with full sun exposure. It has good tolerance to limestone soils.
The roots are very susceptible to nematodes and root fungus. Nematodes only operate in the top 50 cm (1.6 ft) of the soil structure and good practice to avoid them is to plant into a bottomless bucket buried at least 50 cm (1.6 in) deep in the soil and with the top lip resting above the soil surface. The inside of the bucket is then filled with sterilised soil for the plant to grow in and send its roots down underneath the bucket.
Birds attack the fruit, so netting or bagging may be necessary to protect them. Green- and yellow-fruited varieties are reportedly less attractive to birds.
The tree needs to be pruned after each harvest, with the branches cut back and the tree shaped to keep it at a manageable size, to make harvesting easy.
Non-pollinated varieties do not produce true fruit and are therefore unlikely to become a weed problem. They are assessed as a low weed risk for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
The milky latex is a known skin irritant in some people when they are exposed to sunlight.
The leaves fall to the ground creating litter and overripe fruit fall and splatter, staining surfaces and attract flies and other unwelcome insects.
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