One of the pleasures of living in the south is the plethora of plants we can grow in our yards. Growing up in Maine, I probably appreciate the diversity here more than most. When one is limited to plants that are hardy in zones 4 and 5 selection can be meager.
One of my favorite dual purpose landscape plants is the edible fig. It has interesting foliage and delicious fruits that are beginning to ripen. Figs are great raw or in numerous concoctions and they are easy to grow. I made some fig bars last year that were decadent although also wall-to-wall calories.
Figs can be planted away from other landscaping and treated as an orchard crop, but they make a great specimen plant. You can prune them and maintain an attractive shape with dense foliage without hindering fruit production. Many varieties such as ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Celeste’, ‘Black Mission’ and the large yellow ‘Conadria’ grow and produce well in eastern North Carolina.
‘Celeste’ is probably the most common type found in eastern North Carolina
. Commonly called the sugar fig, it is long lived and hardy. They usually stay at a manageable size with very little pruning. Most trees seldom grow much taller than ten feet and can be trained to less than that. They can be harvested almost entirely from the ground.
In general, figs have excellent disease and pest resistance, although green fruit beetles can rob you. Drought and heat tolerance are superb, making them very adaptable to our growing conditions. They don’t thrive in wet soils or shady conditions although they may grow there. Deer also generally leave them alone. Likely this might be because stems are full of a bitter latex material.
Fig growers encounter this white juice when pruning branches or harvesting fruit. Many are sensitive to it and have a reaction much like people have with poison ivy. It can be severe, particularly if the material comes in contact with the eyes. Other complications can arise when sun exposure follows contact with the plant sap. A good practice is to wash your hands thoroughly after handling fig clippings or fruit. Those allergic to latex might also want to avoid exposure to these.
Some people have a skin reaction when they eat too many fresh figs. Usually cooking the fruits eliminates this problem. Other allergies are possible though.
Should most people avoid figs in their diets? I would say a resounding no! Fresh fruits are a healthy treat rivaling any other. The biggest problem I have with fresh ones is that they are extremely perishable. Even in the refrigerator they don’t keep very long, so we often must preserve them by drying or canning.
Dried or processed figs may be high in sugars but they still contain large amounts of fiber and are a rich source of potassium and calcium. What gives figs their diet killing reputation is what you do with them. Adding additional sugar and incorporating them into floury greasy dough pretty much makes any fruit less healthy.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.