With their gnarled trunks and large, lobed leaves growing from 4 to 9 inches long, common fig trees (Ficus carica) are ornamental in addition to having edible fruits. The fig fruit is not actually a fruit but the holder for hundreds of small, edible flowers -- the source of the crunchy bits inside the fruit that most people mistake for seeds. That fact is just one of numerous tidbits of information about the common fig tree.
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People in western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region have cultivated the common fig tree for more 5,000 years. In the United States, common fig is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 10 and also can survive in USDA zones 5 through 7 when given protection during winter. The common fig has been highly desirable throughout the ages because:
- It's drought-tolerant.
- It's simple to propagate.
- It produces two fruit crops each year, once in early summer on the previous year's wood and once in late summer or early fall on new growth.
The common fig tree is considered invasive in some areas. If you live in California or another area where the tree is invasive, then remove all common figs you find in uncultivated areas.
Suitable for Containers
Despite its fast growth to 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, the common fig tree takes well to pruning. Grow it in a container, limiting its height to 10 feet, or grow it espaliered along a fence or wall. A common fig grown in a container in USDA zones 5 through 7 and elsewhere can be taken indoors for winter.
Host to Pests
Gophers sometimes eat a common fig's roots and may necessitate planting the tree in a large wire basket. Also, birds, flies, wasps and raccoons may eat the tree's fruits before you have a chance to pick it.
Without a certain kind of wasp, though, fig trees wouldn't produce the seeds that spout into new fig trees. Fig wasps and fig trees have a symbiotic relationship, with the wasps laying their eggs in and pollinating the flowers of a fig fruit, according to a Cornell University website article about a Cornell and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute study. When the flowers aren't pollinated, the fruits drop from the trees, and the baby wasps die.
Fig wasps are plentiful in California, which is why the common fig is invasive in that state. Fig wasps are not present in the majority of North American locations, though, according to the Floridata website; therefore, seeds never develop from the flowers inside fig fruits in those areas.
Rich in Symbolism
Beginning with Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves after God banishes them from the Garden of Eden, various kinds of fig trees have a longstanding biblical history and several symbolic meanings:
- In the Gospels, a barren fig tree is likened to people without faith -- "Except ye repent ye shall likewise perish."
- Fig fruits and the fig tree are sometimes stand-ins for Israel. One Old Testament prophet saw Israeli forefathers "as the first ripe in the fig tree."
- When a fig tree, meaning Israel, was cut down, its roots were not killed, and the tree, like Israel, would eventually "put forth leaves," giving the "Fig-Tree sign" that Israel would revive and Christ would return.
- Buddha gained enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree, causing some people to credit the tree with magical powers.
- Women of the Kikuyu culture in Africa put fig tree sap on their bodies to ensure pregnancy, believing in the tree's symbolic fruitfulness, according to a Springer.com article about a paper published in one of Springer's journals.
The sap and leaves of the common fig tree cause an allergic reaction on some people's skin. If you have sensitive skin, wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves when you pick the fruits from the tree or prune the tree.