The Fig Tree: A Ficus With A Purpose

A fig may be a ficus, but a ficus won't give you a fig.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Who gives a fig?!

I do, it seems. I gave a fig tree to a friend in recognition of the life she is beginning as a new mother. Maybe I over-sentimentalize about these things, but the gifted tree was also to replace a distant relative of the edible fig this friend had given to me: a ficus tree that I watched die. I hoped to set things right with this gift.

On a cold, blustery November night, we loaded up my friend’s ficus tree into my minivan. I agreed to take in this indoor plant that was suffering from a scale infestation. It must have weighed about 60 pounds in a big planter, and for me, a big houseplant like this was a big commitment. To find the space in our small house to provide adequate light and continue to nurse it back to health would be a long shot. I lit a candle and sat and meditated near the tree each morning. I carefully examined it for scale, monitored its water and provided it with ladybugs, hoping they’d eat any remaining scale insects. Within the first week, one of my cats had curled up in the planter at the base of the tree. Optimistically, I thought the tree might be receiving the good vibes from snoozing kitty. 

Alas, by the next month, all the leaves were off the tree, and the trunk was withered and soft. Ficus trees are very sensitive to changes in light, and will drop and regrow new leaves, changing their light sensitivity by adapting new leaves for the new conditions. So I hoped and waited and watched, and finally my arborist friend declared it dead. Really dead. I couldn’t believe how sad I felt about this loss. Like I said, I get sentimental about plants and their stories.

When I took the ficus tree in, I had no idea what its needs were. To me, a ficus tree was the mundane, ubiquitous, run-of-the-mill houseplant—the one that office staffers buy to fill the corners of waiting rooms. Yawn. Had I become one of those unimaginative people who see plants simply as decor, rather than the food and life support systems I write about? Yikes. So I was surprised at myself for getting attached to this plant in its last days, wishing it was just going into a state of hibernation for the winter and that we’d see it spring back to life when the days warmed again.

The ficus, like most houseplants, is not at-home in our offices. The tropical Ficus benjamina is one of about 850 different ficus species and originates in humid, subtropical Asia and Australia, a vastly different environment from our climate-controlled, dry, indoor settings. While they are popular indoors because they remove toxins, like formaldehyde, from the air, they are also a major allergen, especially to people with latex allergies. As I snapped the lifeless branches into small-enough pieces for the yard waste bin, I smelled an odd, irritating, powdery dust and thought maybe it was a good thing the ficus would soon be turned into compost.

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fig leaves
Karen Lanierr

Months later, in early spring, I ran into my friend that gave me the tree and she shared her news that she was expecting a baby. On that same day, I was lucky enough to attend a Master Gardener program about edible fig trees (Ficus carica spp.), and I thought somehow this was meant to be. The Master Gardeners gave away cuttings from their Chicago hardy fig trees, which were thriving outdoors in our zone 6b area. Ficus schmicus, I thought. Here’s a ficus family member that is actually worth messing with! Fresh figs are amazing. Late last summer, I had picked and tasted fresh figs for the first time. They grew on a young tree in a community garden food forest and they were delicious!

The Chicago hardy fig sounds too good to be true. Also known as the Bensonhurst purple fig, this tropical tree can withstand freezing temperatures, especially with proper mulching, and has the potential to provide fruit twice a year. Like all figs, it is self-pollinating through an interesting process with a fig wasp, so you only need one tree to get fruit. At the presentation I attended, Doris Settles, fig-loving master gardener and author, shared her tips and happy successes with an unusual harvest year. Her four Chicago hardy fig trees are only 3 years old, yet she collected seven gallons of fruit last year. It was an unusually hot summer, and her trees ripened early. She kept them well-watered in well-drained soil, providing about a gallon of water via soaker hose each day that it didn’t rain.

Doris knows this year’s harvest will be much smaller and has pruned the trees aggressively, as many experts advise, which should stimulate abundant regrowth. (Caution: Pruning fig trees releases the caustic latex sap, which can be very irritating to skin. Wear gloves and long sleeves when trimming branches.)

fig cutting
Karen Lanier

While I don’t have a place to plant my own fig cutting yet, I’ve potted it up and expect to see growth soon. This time, I am paying closer attention to what this type of ficus species will require for a healthy life. Because it will need an area about 35 feet in diameter and height, preferably near a southern-exposure wall for the additional heat, I am waiting to plant it in the ground until I have the right situation. From what I’ve seen in the community gardens and from Doris’s presentation on her successful figs, this fig will certainly fare better than the sad little ficus tree did once I get it in the ground. I hope the same is true for my friend and her fig tree. May it provide abundant fruit for her new family.

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