Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Ficus carica (Common Fig) is one of those fun plants that gardeners go to great lengths to grow and protect. Perhaps it’s because of the oversized, textural foliage, the abundance of tasty fruit or the challenge of over-wintering a subtropical plant. Whatever the reason, gardeners alike have owned up to the challenge of raising their fig tree, honing their agricultural skills and treating it as a member of “La Familia.” “Borderline Hardy” is a term used in the industry warning of a plants’ survivability in a given part of the country. The limits of the average annual minimum temperature define specific zones. Most of New Jersey has a hardiness zone of 6 (-5 to +5F) with exceptions in Northwest New Jersey being 5 (-15 to -10F) and coastal and southern Jersey being 7 (5 to 10F). This being said, fig trees are borderline hardy.

Remnants of common fig have been found in excavation sites dating back to at least 5000 B.C. Indigenous to western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, fig trees have, for a long time, been sold, planted and survived in pockets of New Jersey. They just require a little TLC. Recently my wife and I traveled to Europe, specifically Italy, and became even more enamored with Italian culture. This being our third time to Italy, we just love the people, the culture and of course the food. In the summer no meal would be complete without some fresh fruit on the table. I had an opportunity to climb, giving you some idea of the maturity of the tree, a friend’s fig tree and harvest dessert for the family. References to fig trees have been made throughout history. One more notable and apropos, since I just returned from Italy, is in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. One of the central stories on the ceiling is Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden. I’m a plant guy so I’ll leave the theological discussions for those academics. However, I will say this; there are those suggesting that the forbidden fruit may be an apple, grape, pomegranate or fig, I can say without hesitation that Michelangelo painted leaves resembling a fig tree.

Culturally fig trees require a full day of sun, prefer moist, well drained soil, but apparently are not fussy on soil makeups as they seem to sustain themselves well from light sand to heavy clay.  Avoid highly acidic soils shooting for a pH between 6 and 7. Trees can sustain at 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit, although you will almost certainly have to cut the tree back to the ground from year to year leaving yourself more of a bush form than a tree form. A picturesque, deciduous tree, fig trees can reach heights of forty to fifty feet. Bright green foliage, deeply lobed with one to five sinuses is attractive and visible to almost any eye. Pollination is always a question that comes up. The common fig has flowers which are all female and thus requires no pollination. Cross pollination and the need to have a tiny wasp, Blastophaga grossorum, to pollinate do not apply here. They are necessary for the caprifig which has male and female flowers. Keep the fertilization regulated as excessive nitrogen will only encourage rank growth, sacrificing fruit. Look for varieties such as ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Black Mission’, and ‘Kadota’ as suitable candidates for New Jersey. These are great tasting and readily available.

Finally, protecting your tree for the winter. A very good friend of mine and avid gardener, Leo Pietrantuono,  has over fifty years experience handed down to him from his father and his father’s father. Some basic points to keep in mind. First you can always bring small trees, in containers, in and out every year to escape Mother Nature. For those of you who want the challenge of planting one outside, here are some basics. Look for a sunny spot against a wall and you can pick up a few degrees with reflective heat. Leo’s tip is that it’s crucial to understand that frost doesn’t kill the tree, moisture and timing do. With larger trees, tie smaller branches in clusters and bind them to larger ones getting the tree very tight. Do this only after all the leaves have dropped. Be creative with your wrapping. Some use carpet, insulation, tarps, blankets and some even build boxes around their tree. The key is to keep everything dry. Trial and error will dictate your successes and techniques. Generally, most cover their tree in late October/early November and uncover it in mid April. However, the weather will punish you if you don’t pay attention to it.

Life is made up of experiences and meant to be enjoyed. The thirty foot fig tree I climbed in Monte Di Procida outside of Naples had no less than a thousand figs on it. Sal Coppola, owner of Coppola’s restaurant in New Providence, New Jersey graciously offered his home, his family, his garden and of course his fig tree to my wife and me and with that gave us one of our life’s greatest experiences.