Southwest Yard and Garden
Two years ago, I planted a ‘Kadota’ fig thinking that it would be a tree. Both growing seasons it died back to the ground completely and sprouted new shoots each spring. The first year it only produced a few figs, but this year I harvested more than six dozen. What now? Should I prune out the old shoots that died the first year, if so, when?
- Sharon C., Albuquerque, NM
The common fig (Ficus carica) is in the mulberry family and is native to temperate zones of Asia and the Mediterranean. Other Ficus species include several popular tropical houseplants that do not produce edible fruit, like the ficus tree (F. benjamina), fiddle-leaf fig (F. lyrata), and rubber plant (F. elastica). All of these species, including the common fig, generate a milky latex fluid that oozes out when the plant tissue tears, like when picking fruit. Some people find the latex to be caustic, so you may need to wear gloves when picking or pruning Ficus plants.
Like many fruit trees, it is best to prune figs when they are dormant. That is, after leaves have dropped and before buds begin to swell in the early spring. However, branches that you know are dead can be pruned at any time.
Although they are called trees, figs tend to have a more bushy form, especially if they die back to the ground each winter. Luckily, figs are grown on their own rootstock, so the variety stays “true” even with the new season’s shoots. There are many varieties of common figs. Some are better equipped to withstand the winter temperatures common in our desert climate.
In an archived Southwest Yard & Garden column from 2001, Dr. Curtis Smith, retired NMSU Extension Horticulture Specialist, said, “While figs will grow in New Mexico as far north as Albuquerque, that is pushing their limits. Albuquerque is in hardiness zone 7 as determined from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hardiness zone map. I am not aware of figs growing further north in New Mexico. However, in a protected courtyard, it is possible that they will grow in colder climates. In zone 6 a protected location shielding the tree from the coldest weather and where the soil doesn't freeze would increase the chances of the tree's survival. It may freeze to the ground many winters, but if it is a variety that bears on the current season's growth, it will still produce figs. There are other varieties that produce on older growth. These will not produce figs if they freeze to the ground. In colder growing zones, ‘Brown turkey’ and ‘Chicago hardy’ are better suited.” The ‘Kadota’ variety, among others, can grow well in New Mexico, especially in the southern parts of the state. For more information about growing figs and other fruit trees in New Mexico, check out NMSU Extension Guide H-310, Fruits and Nuts for New Mexico Orchards, at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H310/welcome.html.
I’m a fig fan, myself. I think I get it from my grandmother, whom I remember rapping on the kitchen window to scare the birds away from her treasured fig tree in San Antonio, Texas. Her mother, Mammaw, served figs sliced, soaked in milk, and poured over oatmeal. She’d also serve them fresh, but would warn my dad and uncles to leave some pink flesh near the stem to avoid the latex, and thereby avoid “fig fever.” I asked “Uncle Google” about fig fever, but apparently that’s an affliction caused by liking figs too much, not by ingesting the latex. Do you have a fig tree in your yard? Got fig fever? Write me about it! Send emails to “Miss Figgy” at email@example.com , and please include details like size, tree or shrub form, productivity, and variety, if you know it.
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For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/