top of page

The Fig Tree: Exploring its Fascinating Fig Wasp, Pollination, History, Types of Figs & other Ficus

Updated: Jan 18


1. Introduction


Are you ready to unlock the secrets of the delicious and ancient fig fruit? Figs have been tantalizing taste buds for thousands of years. From its unique texture to its sweet, versatile flavor, figs have a rich history and a variety of types to choose from. Not to mention, the numerous health benefits that come with indulging in this tasty fruit. In this guide, you'll discover everything you need to know about figs, including the importance of cultivation and the different types available.
Key Takeaways

As always if you want more fig-related content like this, feel free to subscribe to the Fig Boss newsletter at the top of the page.



2. Physical description:


Fruit:


Botanically known as Ficus carica L, the fig is a unique fruit that is typically pear-shaped and can range in size from 15-200 or more grams.

They have smooth skin that can be green, yellow, grey, red, purple, blue, or black.

The flesh of a fig is soft, sweet, flavorful, and juicy resembling a berry-like jam with notes of different sugars, melons & refreshing floral flavors. The texture of the fig can vary quite a bit. When fully ripe, the texture can resemble a mixture of honey, jam, jelly, or even a thick cake batter. When underripe the texture will be more firm and meaty.

The flesh of the fig can also range in color. The pulp can be white, yellow, amber, pink, orange, red, purple, and almost black.
For more on the genetic diversity of figs, see the Fig Boss fig variety directory, here:

The fig fruit is an inverted flower called a syconium. Inside every fig is 100-400 female flowers that are attached to the internal cavity of the fig. Each flower produces something called achenes, which is the true fruit of the fig tree. The fig syconium is hollow and has a fleshy covering that is lined with small flowers.

Photo credit to cabidigitallibrary.org


Fruit Shape:


While I said that figs are typically pear-shaped, they can also have a wide range of shapes. Some are squatty, rounded, or shaped more like an oval. Each shape has a respective name. The photo was taken from the book, "Fig Trees of the Balearic Islands." - I would highly recommend purchasing Monserrat Pons' book.

See more on why the shape of figs is critical for fruit quality here:

Tree:


Related to the Mulberry and in the Moraceae family, the fig tree is naturally a large fast-growing shrub that can reach heights of up to 40-70 feet. They are deciduous trees with a milky latex sap that's caustic to animals and humans, but the sap also acts as a defense against harmful microbes and helps seal wounds.

Fig trees have a broad rounded crown with multiple points of dominance. When fig trees are grown in fertile land and are a fast-growing or 'standard' variety, they will typically top out at 40 ft. Slow-growing or 'dwarf' varieties can easily be managed at only 6 ft.

A Hardy Chicago fig tree growing at the Southwark community garden in Philadelphia. Read more on the fig trees of Philadelphia here:

Branches:


The branches start green eventually turning brown and then maturing at a pale grey or white color. The branches are light, soft, weak, and lack density. The bark of the tree is quite elastic, which helps it handle extremely cold temperatures.

Buds:


The tree has 3 types of buds; apical, lateral, and vegetative with two types of fruiting buds, breba, and main crop buds. Read more on the importance of preserving the apical and lateral buds for a successful harvest, here:

Brebas buds are formed on last year's growth and will ripen at the beginning of the following season. They can be found right above where the leaf stems attach to the tree. Typically they're only found on the top 4-6 buds of a branch right below the apical bud or growth tip. Next to the breba fruiting buds are lateral buds.


As the fig tree grows, new fruiting buds form along with new lateral buds. These fruiting buds are referred to as the main crop. They're the second crop of figs that ripens in the late summer or fall whereas the breba is the first crop of the growing season.

Leaves:


The leaves of the fig tree can be large, glossy, leathery, and coarse, and are always alternate, ornamental, and turn from a pale green color to a deep dark shade of green. The leaves will naturally turn yellow in fall cold weather as the tree approaches dormancy.

The shape of the leaf can vary depending on the variety of the fig tree and will range anywhere from one heart-shaped lobe to 3 or 5 lobes. The leaf pattern is largely determined by the genetics of each variety, but also the level of vigor and health of the tree. Ficus Palmata is a close relative of Ficus Carica and was quite often throughout history cross-bred with another contributing to an increase in heart-shaped leaves.


3. Ripening Process:


Fig formation and its various stages of development can be observed in short 1-3 day long bursts. As the fig forms from a very small visible pea size, the stem forms first, while the rest of the fruit quickly follows, expanding to a larger size (the size of a penny or a nickel), and staying at that size for about 30 days. Seemingly overnight after the first 30-day stagnation period, swelling begins again. This time to a larger size and staying once again stagnant at that size for another 30 days.


At about the 90-day mark, the fig has reached its final ripening period and will begin to swell, become soft, sweeten, change color and become harvestable over the next 2, 3, or even 15-30 days (depending on your choosing). The caustic sap will be removed from the fruit during this time and the fig can be consumed right off the tree.

Harvesting:


You'll know when a fig is ripe by determining that the neck is soft and that the white sap does not leak from the stem or neck of the fig when harvested. Figs ripen from the bottom up, so it's important to always check the neck.


4. Pollination:


The fig tree has a unique pollination process that is different from most other fruit trees. Unlike other fruit trees, which rely on bees and other insects for pollination, fig trees have a mutualistic relationship with fig wasps. The fig wasp (Blastophaga Psenes) is a small insect that is specifically adapted to pollinate fig trees and is largely responsible for the genetic variation found within Ficus carica L today.

The process of pollination of fig trees is known as caprification. Some fig varieties are parthenocarpic, meaning that these varieties do not require pollination to produce edible and tasty figs, but they still can be pollinated either by hand or by the fig wasp to increase size and flavor.

For more on the benefits of pollination, click here:

The fig tree has two types of flowers, the long-styled female flowers, and the short-styled male flowers. The female flowers are located at the top and sides of the syconium, and the male flowers are located at the base. The fig tree is unique in that it has a closed flower structure, meaning that the flowers are not exposed to the outside. This makes the fig tree an exception among flowering plants.

Figs and Wasps | How fig pollination occurs:


When the female fig leaves the male Profichi figs it takes male pollen with it. The fig wasp searches for female flowers to lay its eggs in. A fig wasp can enter the fig through the ostiole or eye of the fig to lay its eggs inside the fruit. As the wasp lays its eggs, it also pollinates the individual fig fruit by transferring pollen from the male persistent Profichi figs to the female main crop Common or Smyrna figs.

Image credit goes to, obligate mutualism within a host drives the extreme specialization of a fig wasp genome - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available here:


Are there dead wasps in figs?


Not all figs contain wasps. Figs when grown outside of areas in California (where figs do not grow wild as seedlings), will not contain fig wasps within, so depending on where the fig tree is grown will determine if they are considered vegan. Even if they did, the fig wasp is undetectable by the end of the ripening process of the fig.

5. Types of Male Figs:


There are 3 crops of caprifigs or male figs:


  1. Profichi - the first crop resembles the female breba in the way that the buds are produced on last year's wood and ripen during the late spring or early summer

  2. Mammoni - the second crop resembles the female main crop

  3. Mamme - the third crop in which the fig wasp (Blastophaga Psenes) overwinters in

The male fig from which pollen is found is called the Profichi, however, only some male Profichi figs produce pollen. Male fig trees can be divided into two sub-categories: persistent and non-persistent. The persistent caprifigs are the male figs in which pollen will be produced in the Profichi.

Check out my interview with David Burke, the Fig hunter for an exciting and informative deep dive on caprifigs:

6. Types of Female Figs:


The types of flowers found within the fig determine its classification.

Female figs can be grouped as follows:

  • Common Fig: These figs are parthenocarpic, meaning that they do not require pollination. Even though the syconium will only contain female flowers, the flowers are believed to have mutated to never form flower gills or male flowers. This is the most "common" type of fig you'll see. Because they don't require pollination, they're easier to rely on and be grown outside of warm locations that do not ecologically support the fig wasp.

  • Smyrna Fig: These figs contain only perfect female flowers, which means that they are not parthenocarpic and require pollination either by hand or by the fig wasp (Blastophaga Psenes).

  • San Pedro Fig: These figs present different flowers depending on the crop you're harvesting. The first crop called breba does not require pollination, while the main crop does.


For more on pruning fig trees, click here:

7. History:


The fig tree has a rich and ancient history that dates back thousands of years. The earliest evidence of fig cultivation was found in Mesopotamia, where figs were carbonized and are believed to be dated as early as 12,000 years ago. This means that figs were likely grown even before the last ice age.

The ancient Egyptians held figs in high esteem, and they were often used in religious rituals and as a symbol of prosperity. In ancient Egypt, figs were not only eaten as a fruit but also used for medicinal purposes.

In ancient Greece, figs were a staple food and were also used for medicinal purposes. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras believed that figs symbolized peace and prosperity and were often used in religious ceremonies. The ancient Romans also held figs in high esteem and they were considered a luxury food. Roman soldiers were often given figs as part of their rations, and they were also used to make wine.


Figs were also an important part of the Bible, they were mentioned in several passages of the Old and New Testaments. In the Bible, figs were used as a symbol of prosperity, peace, and fertility. For example, in the book of Isaiah, it is written that "the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines."

The fig tree was also an important symbol in the mythology of many ancient cultures. In Greek mythology, the fig tree was a symbol of fertility and was associated with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. In ancient Rome, the fig tree was associated with the god of agriculture, Saturn.

The name 'fig tree' comes from the word ficus in Latin. In other languages, it's called:

  • French: figue

  • German: feige

  • Portuguese: fico

  • Italian: fico

  • Spanish: higo


Today, figs are grown around the world, with the largest producers being in Turkey, Egypt, and Spain, and the fig tree is still important in many cultures around the world.

8. Cultivation:


Cultivating fig trees can be a rewarding experience, as they are relatively easy to grow and can produce a bountiful crop of delicious fruit. Fig cultivation is important for several reasons:

  • Food security: Figs are a valuable source of food for both humans and animals. They provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and can be used in a variety of ways, including fresh eating, preserving, and drying.

  • Economic benefits: Figs are a valuable crop for farmers, as they can provide a steady source of income through their long harvest season and high demand in local markets. Read more about growing figs commercially, here:

  • Cultural significance: Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years and have deep cultural significance in many regions. They are often used in traditional medicine and are an important part of many religious and cultural celebrations.

  • Biodiversity: Fig trees are important for maintaining biodiversity. They provide food and habitat for a wide range of wildlife, including birds, insects, and mammals.

  • Climate change: Figs are relatively drought-tolerant, making them a valuable crop for regions facing water scarcity and drought due to climate change.

  • Sustainable agriculture: Figs are a perennial crop, which means they do not need to be replanted every year, making them a sustainable option for farmers.

  • Food safety: Figs are a low-pesticide crop and can be easily grown organically, providing a safe and healthy food source for consumers.


For detailed tips on the cultivation of fig trees, check out the Fig Commandments blog post here:

You can also buy the beautiful and easy-to-read Fig Commandments poster below. It comes in an 18x24-inch size and was designed in Canva. They are made out of mil, 210-gram Photoart Paper with a satin finish.

9. Other species:


Ficus Palmata, also known as the "Palm-leaved Fig" is a large, tropical fig tree that is native to the rainforests of Central and South America. The tree can grow up to 40 meters tall and has a wide, spreading canopy that is covered in large, glossy, green leaves that resemble the fronds of a palm tree, hence its name. The leaves can be up to 2 meters long and are deeply lobed, giving them a distinctive appearance. The tree produces small, and very numerous figs that are edible but are not particularly tasty.

Ficus Benghalensis, also known as the banyan tree, is a species of fig that is native to India and Southeast Asia. The banyan tree is known for its large, spreading canopy and its aerial roots, which can grow into thick, woody trunks. The fruit of the banyan tree is small and inconspicuous, but it is an important food source for wildlife.

Ficus Religiosa, also known as the peepal tree or bo tree, is a species of fig that is native to India and Nepal. The peepal tree is an important symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism, and it is believed to be sacred by many people.

Ficus Macrophylla, also known as the strangler fig, begins its life as a seed germinating in the canopy of a host tree. As an epiphyte, the seedling thrives in this location until its roots reach the ground. At this point, it begins to grow rapidly and engulfs the host tree, ultimately becoming a freestanding tree on its own.

Ficus Elastica, also known as the rubber fig or rubber plant, is a species of fig that is native to Southeast Asia. The rubber fig is known for its large, glossy leaves and its ability to produce rubber. Commonly grown as a houseplant for its beautiful ornamental qualities and ability to thrive in indoor conditions.

Ficus Lyrata, also known as the fiddle-leaf fig, is a species of fig that is native to West Africa. The fiddle-leaf fig is known for its large, fiddle-shaped leaves and its ability to thrive indoors as a houseplant. Probably the premier houseplant today.

10 . Health Benefits:


Figs are an excellent source of dietary fiber, which can help to lower cholesterol and prevent constipation. They are also a good source of potassium and antioxidants, which can help to protect against heart disease and cancer. Figs are also a low-calorie fruit, making them a great choice for those looking to lose weight.

11. Conclusion


From their history and cultivation to their pollination process and the different types available, this guide has provided an in-depth look into the fascinating world of figs. As a fig tree expert and educator, I hope that this guide has provided valuable information and inspiration for those interested in growing and enjoying figs. Remember, if you want more fig-related content, feel free to subscribe to the Fig Boss newsletter at the top of the page. Happy figging!

4,991 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment


Valya
Valya
Jan 25, 2023

What awesome information! Thank you Ross.

Like
ross raddi_edited.jpg
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I'm Ross, the "Fig Boss." A YouTuber educating the world on the wonderful passion of growing fig trees. Apply my experiences to your own fig journey to grow the best tasting food possible.
LET THESE HELPFUL FIG POSTERS BE YOUR GUIDE
bottom of page