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Chicago Hardy Fig: The Most Hardy Fig Variety? | Comprehensive Variety Review

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

1. Introduction

I've created a series of blog posts that contain comprehensive information on fig varieties that are what I could consider standards. There are 1000s of fig varieties in existence, but figs like Chicago Hardy are usually easy to find, they're inexpensive, and are a classic fig variety that you ought to know like the back of your hand. Check out the other blog posts on the other varieties I've covered in the variety directory here:

Want to learn more about fig varieties? Subscribe to the Fig Boss newsletter at the top of the page for more fig-related information!

2. Growing Characteristics

  • Origin: Likely Italy, but it is widespread throughout Europe. Its origin is unknown.

  • Categorization: Bifere

  • Similar varieties: Azores Dark, GE Neri, Malta Black, Bensonhurst Purple, Sicilian Dark and so many more. See the full list of synonyms here.

  • Taste grouping: Complex Berry

  • Texture: Jammy

  • Size: Small-Medium

  • Ripening period: Early

  • Vigor: Medium

  • Rain resistance: High

  • Split Resistance: High

  • Shape: Pyriforme

  • Hang time: Slightly below average

  • Climate preference: Well adapted

  • Hardiness: High

  • Taste rating: 4.7/5

  • Light requirements: Low

  • Productivity: High

3. History

Hardy Chicago is a fig variety that many fig hobbyists believe originated from the area around or on Mt Enta in Italy. In fact, you may see the term thrown around, called "Mt Etna" figs. This term is simply referring to Hardy Chicago.

It's possible Mt. Etna in Italy is the true origin of Hardy Chicago, but no credible evidence was ever presented. The true origin of fig varieties is a funny thing because Hardy Chicago is the perfect example of a fig variety that has made its way into North America from all kinds of immigrant backgrounds. Italian, French, Portuguese, Middle Eastern, etc... and in current times it's a fig that's growing in many places throughout the world.

The reason for this is that Hardy Chicago is highly adapted and is considered to be the standard fig variety in terms of hardiness for its ability to withstand 0F. It’s also quite the tough fig, with incredible resilience and an eagerness to produce high-quality fruit.

For these reasons, it’s quite clear that it has so many reasons for it to have been continuously propagated throughout the last 100+ years in North America and for much longer in the rest of the world.

Regardless of where this special fig variety originated, or whose family it was originally from, what’s important is that it's become a widespread variety. I can walk around different parts of Philly and find this fig everywhere. I can drive all over New York, New Jersey, DC, and Boston and I’ll fig a Hardy Chicago tree in some fig lover’s yard.

An old Hardy Chicago tree at the Southwark community garden in Philadelphia.

One of the earliest recorded names of this fig is actually Hardy Chicago. However, the name that this fig may have had before Hardy Chicago is called Bensonhurst Purple. Bensonhurst is a section of Brooklyn where fig trees are commonly found growing from fig-loving immigrant cultures.

4. Fig Synonyms

This brings us to the 100+ names that Hardy Chicago has acquired over the last 100 years. You read that right. This fig has been renamed over 100 times. Each could be genetically identical, but most will show observable epigenetic differences that change its growing characteristics, flavor and so much more.

During my first years of growing fig trees, I thought it was beneficial to group the many named Hardy Chicago types together. There are so many and as a result, it proved difficult to avoid acquiring too many of them. In my first year, I had unknowingly acquired close to 15. Quickly learning and wising up, I realized in conjunction with the opinions of others that these figs are the same thing or if not exactly the same, they’re very close.

Now my opinions have definitely changed. I see great value in growing more than one "source" of Hardy Chicago. If you believe in evolution, you should believe that these figs adapt to their environments and while the genetics may remain the same, their characteristics change slightly over time.

Because of their epigenetic differences, I’ve learned that it’s worth growing a Hardy Chicago that is named Azores Dark alongside another called Malta Black and even another called Sicilian Dark and so on. Because of their similarities, I get all of the benefits that this variety brings, but in a slightly different package.

Because this fig was so widely grown and propagated, it only makes sense that we see some differences among figs bearing the Hardy Chicago stamp. In addition to an already difficult task of identifying these differences, there's also the matter of maturity to consider. I didn't want to accept it at first, but to get the truest representation of a variety, you really need to wait a number of years.

Montserrat Pons the most well-respected fig grower alive has mentioned a few times in his book that specific varieties were too young, but he added them in his book anyway as he felt that his data was a true representation of the variety.
I don't recall the name of the variety that I'm thinking of, but the tree was 8 years old at the time the book was published. 8 years is a long time! My point is that I'm sure that I am inaccurate in my findings to some degree with every fig variety and as time goes on we as fig enthusiasts need to be open-minded to what we knew in the past, which could no longer be true.

What I do know is that Hardy Chicago is one of those figs that takes its time maturing and a lot of growers report that it changes quite a bit from year to year even after 3 or more growing seasons.

5. Description

Hardy Chicago is a purple or black-skinned fig with red flesh. It’s exceptionally hardy (to about 5F) and can be grown reliably in zone 6B with protection and in zones 4 and 5 when grown in containers.

It’s a productive tree requiring minimal sunlight hours to set the fruit buds on the new growth of each season. Depending on the Hardy Chicago you’ve chosen, it can also produce breba and those are quite the early season treat as they are similar in quality to the usually superior main crop.

This variety is known as a standard for early ripening figs. If you created a ripening chart and added many different fig varieties to it, Hardy Chicago would be the mark for a fig that’s early and a fig that’s not. Grower’s often will say, “Ronde de Bordeaux ripens 2 weeks earlier than Hardy Chicago.”

In rainy conditions, Hardy Chicago also shines. The figs rarely split because of their ideal Pyriforme shape, but they can struggle in terms of its skin quality. It definitely absorbs water a bit more than I’d like to see in a fig variety. That absorption causes cracking and lowers fruit quality, but I would still put it in a higher echelon of fig varieties when you’re growing in a humid climate.

Having said all that, it can dry or shrivel on the tree consistently intensifying its flavor to quite a high degree. Only then would I place it in the category of the best-tasting figs, but if picked too soon, you can certainly find choose better-tasting fig varieties.

In dry and hot climates like Arizona, West Texas, or Southern California, I would agree with that prior sentiment. There are better-tasting fig varieties, but nonetheless, Hardy Chicago will perform very well in those places and you can’t argue that it’s not a great option.

The flavor when choosing the right source of Hardy Chicago can be cherry flavored with notes of acidity (Hardy Hoboken & Red Lebanese Bekaa Valley). It can also taste like raspberries (Malta Black), but most will have a blueberry or mild strawberry flavor combined with dried fig flavor and high sweetness. I personally prefer Azores Dark for its interesting earthiness, high sweetness, and better ability to dry on the tree due to its smaller size and its concord grape/blueberry berry flavor.

What I’ve learned with all fig varieties is that the source matters. I tasted some Hardy Chicago figs from a number of large in-ground and old trees in Philadelphia and Jersey. They were picked at perfect ripeness and still didn’t come close to the premier Hardy Chicago sources that you can grow. It just goes to show that someone who thinks Hardy Chicago is not a good-tasting fig, may have never tried the right source of it.

Epigenetics, genetics, and growing conditions make a huge difference. So what I would not do if I was interested in growing Hardy Chicago? I wouldn’t it from a local or mail-order nursery. It just won’t be the same experience. Try and look for varieties like Norella, Red Lebanese Bekaa Valley, Crozes, Conde, Kesariani, Hardy Hoboken, and others! Don’t be afraid to contact me if you’re curious if your source will be a good one.

6. Conclusion

Hardy Chicago is a popular fig variety that is widely grown throughout the world for its hardiness, resilience, and high-quality fruit.

Despite its widespread popularity, the true origin of this fig is unknown. It has over 100 synonyms, each of which may show epigenetic differences, making it a valuable addition to any fig collection. The epigenetic differences among figs of the Hardy Chicago variety are worth exploring and growing multiple sources of this variety can provide a slightly different package of its many benefits.

To truly understand a fig variety, one must wait a number of years for its full maturity. Despite some inaccuracies, the continued growth and propagation of Hardy Chicago demonstrates its significance and value as a classic fig variety.

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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.
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