Profiting from the versatile fig

The Peter’s Honey Fig has a light green color with a sweet amber flesh. The tree can grow between 15 and 25 feet in height.

The fig, known as one of mankind’s earliest fruits, dates back to ancient times. Records show that the plant appeared in Mexico around 1560. Years later, special varieties came from Europe and were planted in the eastern United States around 1669.

However, the history of the California fig is brief compared to its heritage through the world. Brought to California by Spanish missionaries, they were first planted at the San Diego Mission in 1759. Moving north through the state, the missionaries continued to establish missions and plant fruit-bearing trees. Borrowing the name “Mission fig,” the black fig has become one of California’s leading varieties. The Smyrna variety of the well-known Calimyrna fig is golden in color and was brought to the San Joaquin Valley from Turkey in 1882. It was renamed Calimyrna in honor of its new homeland.

Deciduous leaves are palmate and divided into three to seven main lobes. The hairy undersides of the leaves produce an itching reaction in sensitive individuals who gather figs.

Considered a fruit, the fig is actually a flower that is inverted into itself. The real fruit is found in the seeds, known as dupes. According to the California Figs Web site (www.californiafigs.com), the fig is the only “fruit” to fully ripen and semidry on the tree.

An article written by Julia Morton titled “Fruits of Warm Climates” describes the skin of the fig as thin and slender, and juicy and sweet when ripe, gummy with latex when unripe. Seeds may be large, medium, small or minute, and range from 30 to 1,600 per fruit.

Versatility means profits

Over the last five years, the California dried fig production has averaged 28 million pounds per year. All dried figs harvested in the United States are grown in California’s Central Valley.

With more and more emphasis on nutrition, health officials recommend adding more fiber to diets, and the fig provides more soluble and insoluble fiber than any other common fruit or vegetable. One quarter-cup serving of dried figs provides 5 grams of fiber—20 percent of the recommended daily value. That same serving supplies 6 percent of iron, 6 percent of calcium and 7 percent of the daily value for potassium. Plus, figs have no fat, sodium or cholesterol, and a high level of polyphenol antioxidants is present in the California figs. Food manufacturers are billing this nearly perfect fruit as one of the natural ingredients for nutritional benefits, versatility and economy.

What does this mean for growers? As more and more products are developed that use figs in some form, consumers will demand more figs on the market. And that’s good news for California growers.

One product in demand is custom-made fig paste, either with seeds or seedless. Fig paste with seeds is manufactured to buyer specifications for color and taste from Adriatic, Mission, Calimyrna and Kadota figs. No fillers or extenders are added to the paste. For those markets that require a product where small seeds may be objectionable, a seedless paste is available. Costs are reduced when mixed with more expensive fruits and fruit pastes.

Figs often grow in clusters and ripen at different times. Unripe figs are gummy with latex.

Another product in demand is fig concentrate. This dark brown liquid is derived from a water extract of dried figs by leaching them with water and concentrating the extract under a vacuum to a minimum of 70 Brix (70 percent fruit soluble solids). The concentrate has many uses, including being reconstituted into single-strength fig juice, a natural coloring, anti-staling agent and flavor enhancer. Fig concentrate can also be used as a natural humectant, as figs contain a chemical that will extend freshness and moisture in bakery products. It has joined other natural products as a replacement for sugar in breads, cookies, sauces and cereals, and has caught the attention of health food manufactures interested in reducing sugar content in commercial food items.

For years, the fig was used as a coffee substitute, and the pharmaceutical industry makes use of the proteolytic enzyme it contains to aid digestion. Some believe that due to its high alkalinity, it may be beneficial to help people stop smoking.

Fig powder is a less costly alternative to other fruit powders on the market. It is free-flowing with 1 percent or less anti-caking agent and can be used where other fruit powders are used.

Fig nuggets are pieces of figs combined with other ingredients such as fruit fiber solids, dextrose, cornstarch, vegetable oil or glycerin. The pieces are produced as raisin-size bites, with dried corn syrup for a free- flowing product. In addition, texture and colored flavoring are added to the nuggets to represent the taste of blueberry, strawberry and raspberry in breads, cookies, packaged mixes, cakes, cereals and pudding mixes.

Commercially manufactured cookies first used dried figs in 1892. California figs are offered diced 3/8-inch and coated with dextrose, rice flour or oat flour for a free-flowing product and sold as 100 percent figs. This product is found in bakery items, packaged mixes and a variety of cereals.

A chemical called psoralen has been found in figs, and is used to treat skin pigmentation diseases. The chemical also works as a skin sensitizer and promotes tanning when sunbathing.

As consumers demand these products produced from figs, the cultivation, harvesting, packaging and shipping will mean more jobs for workers. The fig must ripen on the tree to natural sweetness, partially dry, then drop to the ground to complete the drying process. After figs are gathered and harvested, they are inspected and packaged in tightly packed containers. They appear in the produce or baking section of grocery stores in over-wrapped, moisture-proof bags, wrapped in finger packs, plastic cups or in bulk.

Varieties of figs

Depending on the source, there are dozens or hundreds of varieties of figs. Some are well-known; others have been around for centuries and a few are new to the market. Guaranteed availability and reasonable prices are assured by the significant increase in the California fig plantings in recent years. The state’s climate makes growing figs more profitable than in other regions of the United States.

The Black Jack Fig is a large, purplish fig with a strawberry flesh. This very sweet, juicy, heavy producer grows naturally as a semidwarf tree. To contain its growth, it is recommended the tree be kept under 6 to 8 feet tall with pruning. Figs ripen June through September.

One of the best known figs is the Black Mission Fig. Spanish missionaries brought the plant from Spain to North America. Growing to a large, pear shape, the purplish-black fig has a strawberry-color interior. The Black Mission Fig is considered by many growers to be the most versatile tree. Summer to fall is the expected time of ripening.

The Brown Turkey Fig is well-known for eating fresh and canning whole. Medium in size, the bell-shaped fruits turn purplish-brown and have a light pink flesh. The tree produces sweet figs in summer and a lesser secondary crop in the fall. This species can withstand colder weather compared to some of the other fig trees.

A regional favorite of the Gulf Coast is the Celestial Fig. Due to its ability to withstand single-digit temperatures on occasion, this variety produces excellent quality and high yields. Medium in size, the fruit is purplish-brown with a white flesh. Growing firm and juicy, it is one of the sweetest figs and often called the Sugar Fig Tree.

In 1956, Ira Condit of Riverside, Calif., developed the first artificial hybrid fig. Named the Conadria, it is a large, light green fig with a whitish-pink flesh and a mild sweet flavor. Growing well in hot areas, this plant is a vigorous tree with a long life span.

A good choice for cooler climates is the King Fig. Large and deep green with strawberry-red flesh, the plant is a heavy producer of sweet fruits. A large crop is available in June to August; then a secondary crop for fall.

One of the world’s most commercially grown figs is the White Kadota. Used in the popular Fig Newton cookie, the medium size, lemon yellow fig has an amber flesh and few seeds. This sweet fruit is an excellent choice for eating fresh, canning or drying.

A fig tree grown in the Lone Star State is the Texas Everbearing Fig Tree, a variety tolerant of colder areas. The bell-shaped, brownish-yellow fig contains a sweet amber flesh. An early crop appears in May with the greater produce coming between June and August. The large bushy tree produces a fruit that has few seeds.

The Peter’s Honey Fig, which originated in Sicily, was introduced in by Peter Dana of portland, Oregon. A sweet dark amber flesh hides inside the light yellow-green exterior. This fig tree often reaches 15 to 25 feet tall and wide.

Similar to the Brown Turkey is the Italian Delight. This prolific bearer sets a new crop after the first one. The large reddish-brown fig contains a pink sweet flesh. If growing in a frost-free climate, this large bush will produce year-round. Moderate cold winters will be tolerated if warm summers prevail.

For more information on the growing of figs check these Web sites:

www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/fig.html

www.californiafigs/com/industrial/contentl.html

http://willisorchards.com

The author is a freelance contributor who writes from Jackson, Tenn.