LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
It’s fig season in Louisiana! This year turned out an excellent crop here on LSU’s main campus. Figs (Ficus carica) are native to the Middle East and Western Asia but have become naturalized here in North America. The trees are deciduous and can grow to an average of 10 to 30 feet with branches typically spreading wider than the height.
Figs are relatively easy to grow and care for. A few varieties of figs are available at local nurseries. One of the most popular and reliable is Celeste, which produces small to medium-sized violet to brown fruit with a light red pulp. These are resistant to fruit splitting and souring.
The LSU AgCenter has released several excellent varieties. LSU Purple is a great one, and it has become a favorite. It produces medium-sized dark purple fruit with good resistance to diseases. It can produce two crops: a main crop in July followed by a later crop that sometimes lasts into December.
LSU Gold produces a flavorful yellow fig with light red to pink pulp; O’Rourke, named after an LSU horticulturist, has medium-sized light brown fruit; Champagne has medium-sized yellow fruit; and Tiger has large light brown fruit with a dark brown stripe.
Fall through early spring is a great time to purchase fig trees from local nurseries and plant them in the landscape. They also can be propagated very simply and in many ways. Figs root very easily either by air layering or by cuttings. Air layering is a propagation technique that allows you to start a new plant from the original while still on the plant. It involves the encouragement of new roots by causing a wound to the stem.
Air layering is also called girdling, and as the name suggests, you create a wound by cutting a circular strip of bark from a stem. With figs, it is best to work on 1-year-old wood because it will produce new roots more quickly than older wood. Springtime is perhaps the best time to air layer figs, but you can also layer in the summer and fall as long as there are at least four to six weeks for the plants to make new roots before going into winter dormancy.
You only need a handful of supplies to be successful: a very sharp utility blade or grafting knife, sphagnum peat moss, Saran plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and electrician’s tape or thick rubber bands.
The procedure is to select a 1/4-inch-thick stem, measure back 8 to 12 inches from the tip and use a sharp, clean knife to make a circular cut just into the bark all the way around the stem. Clean your knife with 70% ethanol or a 10% bleach solution prior to making any cuts.
Peel back the bark about a half-inch and remove it or just fold it back. Wrap the area with moistened sphagnum peat moss, then cover the moss with a layer of plastic wrap sealed with electrician’s tape or thick rubber bands (cut and tie). Lastly, cover the area with a layer of aluminum foil.
Go back and check the status of the root production in a month or two. Roots will grow more quickly the warmer the temperature is. Once you see a nice mass of healthy white roots, you can cut the stem behind the roots and plant the root ball into 1-quart or 1-gallon pot filled with a well-drained potting soil.
Figs also can be propagated by cuttings. Cuttings are best taken when the trees are dormant. However, cuttings from figs can still be taken in the spring, summer and early fall. Be sure to allow enough warm temperatures to develop a good root system before the cuttings go into dormancy in the wintertime.
Strip the leaves from the cutting to help conserve energy to the root making process. Work with 1- to 2-year-old wood that is 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick and 6 to 10 inches in length with at least four leaf nodes. Stick the cut ends into moistened potting soil and water in well. It will take a couple of months to get a good mass of roots.
When planting figs, make sure you have adequate space, as fig trees can grow 15 feet or more in height and width. Figs will need a minimum of full sun for six hours to produce. The fruit will be found on the new growth during the spring and early summer.
Trees ordinarily do not produce a good crop of fruit until the third or fourth year after planting. You will generally see small green figs where the leaves join the stem, even on very young trees. However, these fruit usually fail to ripen and just drop off. LSU Purple is an exception, often producing small crops one to two years after planting.
The LSU Gold fig makes large golden fruit. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Fig cuttings are most often taken when trees are dormant after the last threat of a freeze, but they can also be taken in spring through fall. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Air-layered fig cuttings should be covered in moist sphagnum moss, wrapped with plastic wrap and sealed with rubber bands. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Aluminum foil makes an excellent second wrapping around the air-layered fig. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter