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Mission Fig Tree Cultivation

Mission Fig

(Ficus carica)

 

Mission Fig Tree Overview:

The Mission Fig Tree is a wonderful plant that grows like a weed in Southern California.

 

Mission Fig Tree Fruit Appearance:

  • The fruit is roughly the size and shape of a small pear.
  • The Mission Fig is green and firm when unripe.
  • In the few days before maximum ripeness, the fruit rapidly swells, softens and begins to turn purple-brown.
  • The flavor changes from light and airy to very sweet and jam like as the fruit ripens.  Therefore, the perfect time to pick-and-eat a fig will  depend somewhat on your own personal preference.
  • The fig skin sometimes cracks a little bit at maximum ripeness.  That being said, the fruit skin does not always crack.  However, the fruit is almost always ready when the fig will easily detach from the branch with a gentle upward lift.
ripening mission  figs

Mission Figs at different stages of ripeness

Mission Fig cracking is perfect to pick

Mission Fig skin is beginning to crack which can be a sign of maximum ripeness

Mission Fig Taste:

  • Until a few years ago, my only knowledge of figs was from a Fig Newton.  I was not impressed.  Therefore, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when people talked starry eyed about fresh figs.
  • Little did I know that the dry pasty fig of a Fig Newton filling is no match for the utterly delightful flavor of a fresh Mission Fig.
  • Then I tried a fresh fig and I was enlightened.  A fresh fig is tender and delicious. The flavor is perfectly sweet and mild but subtly complex.  There is a faint hint of that characteristic Fig Newton flavor, but that note is relatively mild.  To me the flavor and texture is closer to Crème brûlée without the caramelized sugar on top.

Video Taste:

My friend Jim is a self proclaimed ‘fig hater.’   However, I recently convinced him to try a fresh mission fig and I got it on video.   After trying a fresh Mission Fig he is now a converted ‘fig lover.’  (see video link)

 

Mission Fig Season:

  • There are two main seasons for the Mission Fig.
  • Around June there is a short early season which is known as the breba crop.
  • There is a second extended season that starts around late July-early August and continues through to the end of fall.  This is known as the main crop.
  • The Mission Fig does not need to be pollinated.

 

Mission Fig Tree Landscaping Use: 

  • The Mission Fig tree is  long lived and can grow very large.  However, the tree is easily pruned to just about any size or shape you may want.
  • Because the Mission Fig Tree bark can be sunburned, the branches need to be protected if exposed.  You can easily protect exposed branches with an indoor water based white latex paint (mix about ½ volume of water to the paint and mix before applying).
  • Awesome large leaves can provide dense shade in the summer.  The iconic leaves are also good at covering the ‘nether-regions’ in conservative Catholic art.
  • It is a deciduous tree, so it is not good at hiding anything in the winter when it loses its leaves.  None the less, even without leaves, it can be a beautiful tree.
  • Like many trees, it is best to plant the tree when it is dormant in the winter.
  • You should also plan to prune in the dormant season.  Be careful though, the milky latex sap can be irritating to the skin.  Small dormant clippings are great to use for starter plants.
  • Note, the figs that are not eaten will drop on the ground.  This can make a mess especially if there is pavement nearby.  However, this has not a problem for me, because I eat them all-and want more.  However, if you are not a fig fan, the beauty of the tree may not be worth the mess under foot.
I recently espalier trained this Mission Fig and then whitewashed the bark to to protect it from the sun

A recently espalier trained Mission Fig tree. The bark was whitewashed to to protect it from the sun.

 

Tree Pruning:

 

Mission Fig Soil:

  • The Mission Fig (and most figs that I have read about) can grow and thrive in just about any type of soil as long as it is well draining.  Fig trees seem to have the uncanny ability to extract nutrients from poor soils that are unsuited to other fruit trees.  None the less, your Mission Fig Tree will do better if there is some organic material in the soil.
  • Overall, fig trees seem to prefer alkaline soils.  Therefore, I would avoid putting peat moss in the soil because of its tendency to stay damp and acidify the soil.
  • I have read that nematodes, can be a problem in sandy soils.

 

Water:

  • Once established, this tree is drought tolerant.
  • However, the fruit will be dry and kind of nasty if of you push the limits of water restriction.  Leaves will turn yellow and drop if things get really dry.
  • On the other hand, too much water during fruiting can cause premature fruit splitting.

 

Sun:

  • Full

 

Fertilization:

  • I have seen a lot of conflicting information about the fertilizing needs of a fig.  The general consensus is that since figs are so good at mining nutrients from the soil they don’t need that much fertilizer.  There is a belief that too much fertilizer will result in leafy growth at the expense of fruit.   Exactly how much fertilizer the Mission Fig Tree needs seems to be up for debate.
  • Some people do not fertilize at all and have reported good results.
  • Other people use a balanced fertilizer in the spring.
  • I throw on some organic compost around the root zone with a light application of balanced fertilizer early in the growing season and it seems to work very well.
  • However, I suspect that individual requirements will have a lot more to do with the baseline soil quality and how much organic material you add to the initial planting hole.

 

Temp:

  • The Mission Fig does best in a Mediterranean climate (hot, dry summer/cool, wet winters).  Southern California is great for Mission figs.  That being said, the Mission Fig Tree seems to be one of the most adaptable varieties of figs that can do well in many different climatic zones.
  • For more information about the lowest temperatures that you can expect in your area, check out my article “Climate Zones: What can I grow in my yard?”

 

Mission Fig Pests:

  • The biggest pest for figs is gophers; fig roots are like gopher chocolate.  Gophers seem to specifically seek out fig roots.  Therefore, you really need to cage your fig roots to protect them.  Some people have advocated planting things around the fig tree that gophers don’t like  such as lavender, rosemary, euphorbia species, etc.  (Here’s a bit of info about Euphorbia).
  • For a list of gopher resistant and nonresistant plants, check out my post from 8/28/13.
  • However, companion planting is not going to be an adequate form of protection by itself because the gophers will just dig around those other plants to get to their prize fig roots.
  • Basically, you must cage the roots of this tree.  When you cage the roots, allow the cage to come at least 4 inches above the soil line so the gophers cant climb up into the cage.  One of my friends has a gopher in his yard that he calls “the professor” who did just that-it climbed up into the cage and took down one of his fig trees from the inside.
  • Click here for a simple way to build a gopher cage.
  • Other than that, the other major problem is fighting the birds and squirrels for the fruit.
  • A few years back, I tried bird netting to protect the fruit, but the tree grew through the mesh.  Therefore, the process of taking the netting off the tree resulted in significant leaf damage.
  • I now use Holographic Bird Scare Tape that works rather well at keeping the birds away.  If you are going to use glitter tape, it is best to only use it during the ripe season so that the birds don’t get use to it.  A very similar product is Flash Tape but I haven’t tried that.
  • Another recommendation is to pick/eat the figs every day so the neighborhood critters are less likely to notice whats available to them.
  • I have read that nematodes, can be a problem to Mission Fig Tree roots when planted in sandy soils.
Glitter tape tied to a stake to scare birds away.

Scare tape tied to a stake to scare birds away.

Mission Fig Food Uses:

  • Umm, so good just to eat it fresh out of hand.  The fruit does not ripen much off the tree and it doesn’t last long either.  The fruit bruises easily which may be a major reason why you don’t see fresh figs in many stores.  My best advice; eat it fresh and fast (eat it the same day you get it).
  • Figs are also great with cheese or in a salad.
  • They are sometimes added to cooked meets after a gentle sear.
  • Of course you can also make jam or jelly out of them.

 

Misc:

  • Many historians believe that the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the Garden of Eden was actually a fig (apples didn’t grow in the Middle East in the biblical days).
  • Franciscan missionaries first planted the Mission Fig in San Diego around 1768.

About Thomas Osborne, MD

Dr. Osborne is a Harvard trained Radiologist and Neuroradiologist who loves to share his insight about medicine and gardening.

15 comments

  1. Great article with a whole lot of information I didn’t know!! And I have figs.
    My first fig tree started, literally, as a stick in a pot of soil. It was from a tree that an Italian man brought over from his farm in the early 1900’s. That tree is now more than 15 feet tall. I planted a fig from a Virginia nursery next to it about 6 years ago – can’t remember what kind it was. And for the first 4 years, I fussed over them, feeding, pruning and even tying and wrapping for the winter.

    Two years ago, I just said….let them go. I covered the root area with mulch and stopped everything except the pruning. These guys (Figaro and Evangeline) are much happier with the laissez faire approach! And I’m not burning energy worrying about will they/won’t they produce. Oh and the figs are grand. My only problem is the European hornets and bald-faced hornets that discovered my bushes. The only way to avoid them is pick at dawn!

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Thanks for the insight Pat. As you mentioned, sometimes less is more when it comes to caring for figs. Sorry to hear about the hornets, not sure what to do about them. Perhaps another reader will have some insight for you. Ill ask around too.

  2. My mission fig trees are struggling under attack from an army of Gophers. Even though I put them in root cages made of wire mesh, the Gophers must be nibbling on new root growth extending beyond the wire mesh cage. So the Mission Fig trees do fruit but the yield is low and the leaves are sparse. Any ideas for getting them healthy again?

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Well, that is a bummer. Gophers do love figs.

      So what to do:
      A quote from the movie Caddyshack “…kill all the gophers”
      That would definitely help, but as you know it is not easy to do.

      Another option that I would consider is to dig up the tree and replant in a really big hole with a big gopher cage.
      Doing this in the winter, while the tree is still asleep, is your best option to reduce plant stress.
      However, with this ‘non-winter’ we are having in California this year, it may not be an option to take advantage to the winter-dormant stage.

      Regardless, if the gophers have found a fig and they are not ‘taken care of’ then the gophers will not give up until they have eaten every fig root possible.
      Therefore, replanting your fig may be your best option to save this tree from the underground marauders.

      • Yes you are probably right Tom. But looking at the biggest Fig tree today, I noticed that it had already started budding so I don’t know whether it is too late to transplant – we have had a very mild winter after a severe cold snap. Fortunately I have 4 other Fig trees in different areas so at least one should survive the Gopher onslaught. Also I noticed Gophers seem to attack the Japanese Maples in spite of them being large and established. I have already lost two, four struggling. What is annoying is they are very expensive and very very slow growing so the pain of the loss is great. Well I guess that’s life… Some pleasure, some pain. Thanks for your helpful advice Tom.

  3. According to Las Pilitas ( http://www.laspilitas.com/easy/easycritters.html) gophers don’t like mulch. In my neighborhood I have seen a lot of gopher activity and so far (knock on wood) my mission fig tree and my yard have not been attacked. I use mulch and my fig tree is in the middle of my native garden and I only manually water it. I don’t know if this has helped it or it’s been just luck. There is another fig tree in my neighborhood at the top of a hill in the middle of grass (so it is probably watered regularly) and it hasn’t been attacked yet either.

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Interesting Brett
      Thanks for sharing the info.
      Hopefully you dont have many gophers in your ares.
      I am a “better safe than sorry” guy… so if it was me, I would still cage the roots to protect from gophers.
      Good luck,
      Tom

  4. I had a gopher problem until I adopted a 3 y.o. border collie cross. No gophers allowed!
    -Cheers, Catherine in SoCal

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Awesome, I have heard great things about those border collies and ability to get the job done.
      Thanks,
      Tom

  5. RE nematodes — the root knot type are actually deadly to figs inside a year or two, and if you had a confirmed diagnosis, you’d want to pull and kill. Theoretically can be remedied by bare-rooting the tree and sterilizing the roots with carefully contolled heated water ~ 121F or so for an hour supposedly, but why risk it?

    They also demolish mulberries and most of the ordinary garden vegetables. I fought off a case localized to my garden beds a while ago, and it’s why I insist on my gardeners only using tools at my house, not their own.

  6. Hi,
    Your site is a great source of info and public relations practices.
    About the two photos of the figs up near top, are you sure those are ‘Mission’ figs? Are you indicating them being the same as ‘Black Mission’. Just going on my experience the figs in this photos look to me like Brown Turkey, or possibly Celeste/Celestial(though I’ve known that to be more elongated tear drop actually, but I’ve seen i.d. photos of Celeste that resemble the photos your showing).
    Scott

    • Thomas Osborne, MD

      Hey Scott
      Thanks for the note and for your support.

      You bring up some good points.
      As you know, identifying figs can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Here is a great quote (below) from a fellow Southern California fig growers website with awesome growing information:

      “The size, shape, and color of a fig can be dramatically different depending on soil, climate, fertilization, watering and any other factor…. Often leaf shape is used to classify and identify fig varieties, but fig leaves are extremely variable, even from the same tree. Generally they can be used most effectively to rule out varieties, rather than to make a definitive identification.”
      Website reference for that quote Figs4Fun.com.

      I can tell you for sure, that from the taste alone, this is definitely not a Brown Turkey. I do have a Brown Turkey and an Osborn growing right next to it and they look/taste significantly different. Brown Turkey figs seem to have a very distinctive flavor that is usually described as “figgy” … more like a Fig Newton. This tree has a sweet and more mild flavor and definitely not that figgy.

      Celeste is a good idea as this fruit looks rather similar to what I know of Celeste.
      I guess I can’t rule out that possibility.
      For what it is worth, Wikipedia has a nice picture of a Mission fig that looks pretty identical to the ripening figs in the pictures in my article See Wikipedia article on Mission Fig.

      On the flip side, I did buy this tree from a reputable seller as a Mission Fig… However, I suspect that it is more specifically a Vista Mission Fig.
      Although at full ripeness, this fig does tend to get darker than the provided pictures, it does not get as dark as my Black Mission Fig (AKA Franciscana).

      Thanks,

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