The common Fig has a long history of some 11,000 years, of being bred and cultivated in the Middle East. Probably, around that time, the early farmers noticed a chance genetic mutation which produced a self-pollinating female fig tree variety, which could only be propagated by rooting a shoot. In this all-female fig tree variety, the male flower parts do not develop. While we think of a fig as being a fruit, it is really a “false fruit”, as the flowers and the seeds have grown together to form a single mass where the embryonic flowers are actually inside the fruit. In most other fruits, such as apples, the flowers are outside the embryonic fruit. If it had not been for this chance mutation, we would not be able to grow figs in our climate, as the original figs had to be pollinated by a specific small wasp which had to crawl inside the fig to pollinate it.
While figs grow well outdoors in the South of England, they are more of a challenge the further North you go. But it is not impossible as I have seen a large fruiting specimen, just South of Edinburgh, growing outside against a West facing wall. The photos are of a small specimen tree growing outdoors all year round, but against a South facing wall in Glasgow. They need all the sun and shelter that they can get. In the North of the UK, they are more commonly over-wintered in a greenhouse or other frost free place, while they are dormant. Then they are brought outside for the Summer in their pot, provided that they are not too big to handle. For a fig that is planted outside all year, you could provide some fleece protection while it is dormant.
Fig trees will grow into very large specimens, easily 15 m high if you let them. I know of a house in London where you could lean out of a third floor window and pick ripe figs! However, if you want them to fruit well and be of a manageable size, you will need to restrict the roots. This can be done by using a very large pot or tub, such as are used to transport young trees, and sinking it into the ground. Alternatively, books frequently recommend using paving slabs sunk into the ground to form a large box and then filled with not too fertile a soil. Treat them mean and make them keen, if you want lots of fruit, rather than soft sappy growth. Fig trees in pots or tubs benefit from being fed a high potash liquid feed, such as a tomato fertiliser, perhaps once a month during Spring, Summer and Autumn. They will also need to be kept watered if there is a drought.
Figs will be ripe when they start to change colour from bright green to a yellow-green and then develop a brown tinge. You will also notice that they start to droop down and will go slightly soft if gently squeezed with finger and thumb. If left, they will start to expand and split and will attract the unwelcome attention of insects, wasps and birds. Pick them as soon as they are ripe.
Storage. They do not store well as fresh fruit, not more than a few days after picking, even when kept in a fridge. You can freeze them but the texture is gone and they are very soft when defrosted.
They will keep for a few weeks if cut up into small pieces, skin as well as the flesh, put into a pan with a little sugar or maple syrup, and brought to the boil and simmered for 5 minutes. Allow to cool and put into a clean jam jar with lid and keep in the fridge and use as necessary on porridge or in puddings.
The fruit producing cycle is unusual, in that during the late Autumn of the previous year, they form very small, pea sized, immature fruits. Provided these do not get badly frosted over the Winter, they will reach maturity the following summer, and be ready for harvest during July.
During the Spring, the tree will also start to produce another crop of figs, and these should ripen during late August, September and into October. In addition, there will be other smaller figs but these will be too small to reach maturity before the Winter starts in the UK. They will fall off along with the leaves in early Winter, as the Fig tree is deciduous. Sadly, this late crop of smaller figs are very hard and have not developed any sweetness and are not worth eating.
Suggested varieties of figs for the UK. They need to be hardy to withstand our Winters and the usually recommended varieties are :-
Brown Turkey with large brown-red oval fruits with sweet red flesh.
Brunswick which has very large oval fruits with a greeny yellow skin, flushed with brown when ripe. The flesh is yellow, reddening near the centre, and very sweet and rich with a moderate crop.
White Marseilles. This has large greeny white, pear shaped fruits with clear transparent flesh and a sweet rich flavour.