Dare I say that the information that I'm going to present to you, is probably my most important contribution to fig growers. I'm quite proud of what I've learned over the last 8 or so years growing figs in a climate where you'll certainly see some difficulties. If the fig tree had an enemy, it would certainly be the rain. The fig books won't tell you some of this information because the fig experts of the past and current weren't growing figs in a place you probably shouldn't. Therefore I believe that this information is incredibly valuable. Yet.. I am happy to provide this information for free. I only ask that you apply this information to your own situation, expand on it and lets talk about it to potentially learn more.
So without boring you any further, lets talk about the fig tree variety characteristics you should look for when growing figs in a humid climate. I'll be discussing the eye of the fig, the skin, the shape and something called the susceptibility window. For a video format and more information, check out my video below:
1. The eye - Most growers know about the importance of having a closed eye, but it's often overlooked. Even in dry places, an open eye can complicate things. The reason for this is that when you have an open eye that isn't plugged up with honey, the inside of the fig is more exposed to Mother nature and all the little microbes that come with it. If you think about it, the skin of the fig during the final ripening stage is there for a reason-- to protect the important seeds of the fig. After all the fruits themselves are inside out flowers, so all of the female flower parts called achenes along with the seeds are found inside the fruit. I'm sure you could think of it in different terms, but in an evolutionary or biological sense, the outer shell of the fig is there for a reason. When the inside of the fig is exposed to the outside elements, mold, fermentation and spoilage are all more frequent and these are exponentially more common in rainy/humid conditions.
2. The skin - The same can be said for the skin. When there are holes, splitting or cracking in the skin, the inside is once again exposed. Critters & insects can all create holes and there's a whole lot of solutions for that. Simply by using nets, chicken wire or inside out duct tape wrapped around the trunks of our trees (or a product called Tanglefoot) can solve a lot of those common issues.
What about cracking? Well cracking can be caused by excess nitrogen in the soil, so it's recommended that you don't overfeed your trees in humid places. What also causes cracking and what you could say is the more severe version of cracking, is something called splitting. These are both largely caused by water and high amounts of humidity sitting on the skin of our figs. Because the skin of our figs can either act like a waterproof jacket, like a sponge or anything in between. It depends on the genetics! Just like us as humans, our genetics have a big impact on our physical features. The size of the fruits, the size of the eye, the overall shape of the fig, and the quality of the skin all comes from your particular fig varieties' genetic code. Most fig varieties have a skin that absorbs water rather than a skin that works in its favor to repel it. This is really why the fig's worst enemy is the rain. That water absorption during the final ripening (swelling) stage causes the figs to expand quickly and when that fast expansion of the fruits occurs, the figs crack and in more severe situations, they split at the location where the water was sitting on the fruit.
To sum it up, moisture from rain can absorb into the fruits, which then causes a fast expansion of the fruits and the interior of the fig to now be exposed to Mother nature. Humidity causes something similar. Below about 50% humidity, the fig will actually evaporate water from its skin. Above roughly 50%, that dehydration doesn't occur and at high levels of humidity, it is even absorbed into the skin just like the rain would. Morning dew also has the same effect!
3. The shape - Believe it or not, the shape of our fruits also has a lot to do with splitting. Splitting frequently occurs at the eye, which is the fig's most sensitive location because during the final ripening stage, the fig ripens from the bottom up-- that's why when you harvest your figs, you'll know they're ripe when the neck is soft. In this final ripening stage, some varieties simply expand in a way that forces the eye to open. Typically these varieties have a flat or round bottom rather than having a long and slender shape. If the fig expands mostly downwards rather than outwards, there's just simply a lower chance to see splitting. Expansion can also be compounded by excess soil moisture. More water in the soil causes our fruits to expand further than they normally would.
Additionally, what I also consider to be apart of the shape of the fig, is the length of the stem or simply how the fig hangs during the final ripening stage. If the fig is swelling and the eye is pointed towards the sky, well that makes it easy for the rain to hit the eye and cause splitting. If the eye is pointed downwards the eye will be in a more protected location, and instead you may see cracking down the sides, which is usually a much better trade off. A lot about the importance of the shape was discussed here in a prior blog post: https://www.figboss.com/post/some-standout-fig-varieties-with-the-superior-shape
4. The susceptibility window - When figs are swelling and becoming softer up until the time we harvest, they are increasingly more susceptible to rain absorbing into the skin, so it's common sense to think about that susceptibility window as a priority. Every fig variety ripens in that final ripening stage at a different rate and is therefore susceptible to the potential for rain hitting the skin of the fruit for different lengths of time. Fortunately that length of time is largely determined by the tree's metabolism, so if we as growers can take every step possible to keep the soil warm while the figs are ripening their crop, we'll see much better success. The problem comes in the later stages of the growing season. It gets very cold for our fig trees very fast here in my yard around September 15th. During this time that susceptibility window can double or even triple. If we have a short susceptibility window of 1-4 days, we can pick our figs prior to the rain in most cases at a high quality. While the rain is occurring, our figs are not susceptible and then shortly after the rain, we can resume harvesting at a high quality.
If I were to rank each of these characteristics, the susceptibility window or the hang time would likely be the most important. If you can avoid the rain completely, would you still need the right skin quality? Would you still need the right shape? It would certainly help, but a fig that I really enjoy growing called Little Ruby ripens consistently here at a very high quality. Even though it has an open eye, skin that acts like a sponge, and the wrong shape that often doesn't hang in the right way, it's only susceptible to rain in a 2-3 day window. It's able to pretty much avoid the rain completely.