The first record of a fig tree successfully grown in the UK was just up the road from Hampton Court in the garden of the Archbishop’s Palace at Fulham, in 1520.
However, their history stretches back much longer into the past, with archaeology records from the Middle East going back 11,000 years. It’s not hard to see why figs are possibly the first domesticated food plant – picked fresh from a tree they are meltingly sweet with the texture of silk.
As far back as Roman times, people were listing large numbers of different fig varieties and it is likely that many of the extant varieties are direct descendants of these. However, the variety that is most often recommended for the UK is ‘Brown Turkey’ as it is the most reliable to fruit here – choose the right sunny, sheltered spot and they will ripen as far north as Scotland. Lately I have fallen so much in love with figs that I am experimenting with another 10 varieties in pots to see whether they will produce viable crops.
The fig is a tree well adapted to the Middle East and Mediterranean climate, being very tolerant of seasonal droughts due to its deep root system seeking out water from great depths. Because of this, it is a plant that can thrive against a dry, sunny wall, or even in a large pot (though don’t neglect the watering here as the pot will impair its water seeking ability).
Visitors to the kitchen garden at Hampton Court, often ask why their own fig is the picture of health but never actually produces fruit. The answer generally is that if the fig has it too good, it will just spend its energies on putting out lush green growth. If you want a good fruit crop, you need to restrict the roots. Pots are one way to do that, but when we planted our figs in the ground, we made a deep hole lined with paving slabs on all sides and rubble in the base and then planted into that. We are training these as ‘standards’, which look like lollipops, but wall grown fruit can be planted the same way but grown as flat ‘fans’ along the wall. The wall will store and reflect back the heat of the sun, so choose this method if you live in the northern half of the UK.
An unusual feature of the fig is that it has fruits in various stages of development all year round. The ones that ripen most reliably in our climate are the figs that are tiny embryos in late autumn. To encourage the plant into ripening just this flush of fruits, we remove any fruit larger than this in November. These tiny figs will survive the winter (even the week of below freezing temperatures we had this year) and grow to ripen in August. Last year we had such lovely late summer and autumn weather that the second flush also ripened in October, but this was unusual.
The fig can be appreciated for more than just it’s fruits though. It is an elegant tree, with large, shapely leaves (familiar from all those paintings of Adam and Eve) and smooth, pale bark. They can make beautiful patterns along a wall – a fig at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent is trained in loops, swirls and arcs and looks amazing in winter as well as summer. The leaves can also be used as a flavouring for ice-creams and custards – they have a sweet, figgy smell and impart a coconut like flavour to dishes.
And finally, I have heard people say they won’t eat figs because they contain the carcass of a type of wasp that pollinates the flowers and then dies, but rest assured that this species does not live in UK climates and the figs pollinate themselves, so your fruits will be wasp-free.