Figs are in season right now, but they are still hard to come by in Indiana. Unlike many other fruits, figs do not continue to ripen once harvested. That means they must be harvested when ripe (an uncommon practice in our global food economy). To further complicate matters, figs are exceptionally fragile and spoil quickly. They just aren’t great candidates for shipping. Because of this, they cost a premium.
To me, they are worth the effort of seeking out–or, even better, growing myself. There’s something magical about figs. I am a bit obsessed. They are sumptuous and biting into one is like opening a jewel box. Like an avocado, a fig is perfectly ripe for a maddening sliver of time. Like avocadoes, they are also fiber-rich and high in potassium.
A fig, technically, is not a fruit. A fig is an inverted flower. Each fig, or pod, is filled inside with tiny flowers. When you eat a fig, each of those crunchy “seeds” called achenes, are the fruits of those flowers. A fig is a “fruit” filled with tiny fruits. You might be wondering how in the world the flowers can be pollinated if they are inside the fig itself. Many varieties depend on a specialized wasp that enters the fruit and pollinates it. Nature is amazingly specialized and resourceful.
Figs thrive in zones 7-10. Some of the hardier varieties, like Chicago Hardy (aka Bensonhurt Purple) can grow in zone 6 and sometimes in zone 5 (my zone). I have 2 Chicago Hardy on my farm. Chicago Hardy self-pollinates and is not dependant on a wasp for pollination. There are a number of strategies being used to grow figs in colder climates. I will share what I do and mention some other techniques.
I take the easy route. Basically, I do nothing. I allow winter to do it’s worst and my figs die back to the ground each year. Each year, they come back bigger and better and my crop increases. This works well, with one hitch. Because they have to regenerate each year, I have to push them to ripen before it gets too cold. By late August, I pinch off the smallest of the fruits so the plant can focus its energy into ripening the biggest of the figs. Then, in mid-September, I apply oil to the bottom of the fig. This is called the eye and is directly opposite the stem. I dab a bit of olive oil on with my finger. This will trap the naturally produced ripening gas (ethylene) inside the fig and will speed ripening. Here is a fascinating article explaining the science and history behind this technique. If the figs have begun to ripen on their own a bit, this works like a charm.
My growing season isn’t over yet, but I will have many that fail to ripen this year. I plan on either candying them or turning them into a jam. Follow recipes for that because unripe figs contain high amounts of latex and can cause irritation. If you have a latex allergy, stay away.
If you want to grow figs in zone 5, here are some other techniques worth researching:
- Look for a sunny, but protected microclimate. The warmth radiating from a concrete wall in winter, for instance, might make the difference between a fig surviving or not.
- Grow in a greenhouse.
- Grow in a pot that you can then move into a protected spot in winter.
- Insulate and wrap for winter protection.
- Dig a trench and bend the fig down into it for winter protection.
I fully expect figs to become a hardy Indiana crop as climate change accelerates. Of course, I would prefer for that not to happen, but getting a head start on those crops that will become more and more viable in my landscape seems like a proactive step to take.
Do yourself a favor and enjoy some figs this fall.