Originating in the Middle East centuries ago, the fig (Ficus carica of the mulberry family) ranks among the earliest cultivated fruits and has been prized worldwide for its succulent flesh. The trees, which were easily propagated from a single branch, became plentiful in countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea from Asia to Europe.
The fruit (which is really a flower) reportedly arrived in America in the 1500s with trees planted in temperate regions such as South Carolina and Florida, and brought to the West Indies by British explorers. More than a century later, fig trees were planted along the southern coast of California and in Mexico by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
Figs can come in a number of varieties that influence exterior color (light yellow to green to brown or black), with very juicy and sweet flesh that ranges in color from golden, pink, and red to deep burgundy or purple. Most fruit is shaped like a beet or short-necked pear, and is used in desserts or paired with savory dishes. Some figs have a more pronounced earthy or nutty flavor.
There are four types of figs (Common, Caprifig, Smyrna, and San Pedro) and a number of varieties, including Adriatic, Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Calimyrna, Dottato, Kadota, King, Praga, Sierra, and Tiger.
Fresh figs are fragile and difficult to ship and store. In the United States most figs for commercial use are grown in California, as the fruit does not tolerate cold temperatures. Outside North America, figs are grown throughout the world with Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey among the top producers.
Dried figs, first sold in the 1890s (i.e., Fig Newton cookies), are a popular substitute for their less hardy fresh counterparts, due to ease of use and widespread availability.
References: California Fig Advisory Board/California Fresh Fig Growers Association, University of Arizona College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles.
PESTS & DISEASE
Figs are susceptible to several opportunistic pests including beetles (which can damage fruit, induce spoilage and souring, and attract other pests such as vinegar flies and navel orange worms) and mites (which attack buds and young leaves, and cause russeting).
Alternaria rot, also known as surface mold, can occur on both immature and ripe fruit. Tiny green specks will turn into larger, yellowing sunken spots.
Brown rot or soft rot will affect the fruit, causing internal streaks of pink or brown and discolored flowers. As figs ripen, streaks turn rusty and water-soaked spots emerge, and can eventually cause a syrupy leakage.
Sour rot or souring symptoms are noticeable after fruit ripens. Infected figs develop a pink hue and become water soaked, exuding a pink syrupy liquid. Later stages are characterized as disintegrated pulp with white scum. Externally, the fruit will turn soft and black, shrivel, and dry up.
Fig mosaic can damage leaves and fruit; mosaic spots present as yellow on leaves and may be scattered or throughout the surface. Spots on the fruit are less conspicuous but can lead to premature fruit drop.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, California Fig Advisory Board, North Carolina State University/NC Cooperative Extension Service, University of California Fruit & Nut Research & Information.
CULTIVATION & STORAGE
Figs will mature and dry slightly on the tree; a slightly droopy stem and some give in the flesh are signs of ripeness.
The fruit is best stored at room temperature but can be refrigerated for a few days as well as wrapped and frozen for later use. Optimal temperature storage is from 30 to 32°F, with 90 to 95% relative humidity. The fruit does not tolerate prolonged exposure to cold temperatures below 20°F.