Are You Stuck with a Tree Full of Green Figs?

dsc_0272

Unripe figs in Joe Pietanza’s Brooklyn garden

A fig lover’s nightmare is to have a tree full of small, hard figs sitting stubbornly unripe on the tree at the end of the season.  It is often tempting to pick this end of season fruit before it’s fully mature, but will these figs ripen off the tree, or will you be stuck with sour, green lumps?  It’s an age-old debate. Don’t be surprised to hear an Italian gardener tell you fervently that no, figs will never ripen off the tree, never pick an unripe fig – period.  Then the next day you may hear his wife, cousin or neighbor give an equally enthusiastic yes, it’s okay to pick the fig a little early, just let it sit on the counter for a day or two and it will ripen right up.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong? Will the fig ripen or not?

It turns out they are both right– sort of.  Figs are what is scientifically known as a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (on the tree or not), when exposed to ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by the fruit itself.  Other climacteric fruits include bananas, apples, peaches, and tomatoes.  Unlike other climacteric fruits, though, figs only responds to ethylene gas in their later stages of development.  What does all that mean for the fig debate?  Basically, a fig which has already started the ripening process will continue to ripen even off the tree, so a fig which is soft and full, but not as sweet and juicy as you might hope, will become riper if you leave it on your counter for a few days.  A hard, green, sour fig on the other hand will not ripen on your counter, no matter how long you wait.

We thought we’d share a few ideas for how to make sure you end up with luscious, juicy fruits, not a sad tree full of never to be tasted figs.  Unfortunately, if it has already frosted in your area, it may be too late to ripen any figs left on your tree.  If frost still hasn’t hit where you live, give some of these ideas a try.  Not sure if your figs are ripe or not – check out our blog post here for help on knowing when your fig is ripe.

“Pinch” the figs: Figs bear their main season fruit on the current season’s growth, which means you’ll only get figs on the new growth at the end of the branch.  A good way to ensure that all your figs will ripen is to keep the new growth to a minimum by “pinching.”   This method of reducing the number of fruits allowed to grow is similar to pruning a grape vine or a fruit tree and should be done in the spring after the plant sets its first leaves.  To do this, find the branches from this year’s growth – they should be green and supple compared to previous year’s growth.  Count the leaves on the current growth starting from the trunk side, and pinch off the growing tip so that only 5 or 6 leaves remain on the branch.

You can use this same principle later in the season as well.  Some gardeners claim that pinching the ends off of branches which have already set fruit can encourage the last figs on the tree to ripen.  They recommend pinching the tip off the tree late in the season, around mid-Spetmeber for most of the East Coast. Removing the tips of each branch when the tree has already set fruit will encourage the tree to stop growing and send its energy in to ripening fruit instead.

Reduce the number of figs: If you find yourself mid-Summer and you forgot to pinch back the growth in the Spring using the early pinching method, don’t worry.  You can apply the same principle to a tree which already has already fruited.  Just pick off the smallest, greenest fruit, furthest away from the trunk. This will ensure that the tree sends its energy into ripening the fruit that remains.  You’ll end up with fewer figs, but they’ll be more likely to ripen.

If, like many of the readers who are writing us now, you find yourself towards the end of fig season with no ripe figs, don’t worry, you still have some options.

Oil the figs: Another method of ripening figs is to dot the eye of the fig with a bit of oil.  To do this, simply dip a Q-tip in some olive oil and brush it lightly over the little belly button on the bottom of the fig, opposite the stem.  Anointing the figs like this helps seal the eye of the fruit, preventing ethylene gas from escaping and encouraging the fig to ripen faster.   Figs treated this way can ripen in as little as two days. Be forewarned though, this method will not work if the figs are extremely under ripe, in fact it can cause the immature figs to fall off the tree. Additionally, many people claim that figs ripened this way don’t taste as good as figs ripened naturally.  If the forecast calls for cold weather a few days out though, it may be worth your while to try to coax a few ripe figs off the tree with this method.

_5

A drop of oil on the “belly button” of the fig can help ripen it in as little as a day.

 

The banana bag method:  Figs need an average daytime temperature of at least 60 degrees to ripen – any colder and the tree will begin to enter dormancy.  With that in mind, one of our gardeners in Pittsburgh, Jimmy Sunseri keeps a close eye on the weather.  When he sees a cold stretch coming in he recommends picking all the fruit left on the tree and putting it in a paper bag with a banana.  Bananas have high quantities of ethylene gas, and will help to quickly ripen any of the figs which have already entered the maturation phase.  Not all the figs will ripen he says, but you might get a few last sweet figs.

Eat them green:  If all else fails you could try one of the many recipes for green figs.  In Italy, green figs are added to frittatas and served on pasta. We particularly like this recipe for unripe figs and fettucine which is adapted from the Italian version online here.

1 lb. fresh fettucine pasta
1 medium onion, cut into a small dice
¾ pound unripe figs, rinsed and diced
4 oz pancetta, cut into a small dice
Pinch of hot pepper flakes
½ cup of dry white wine
Olive Oil
Salt
Grated Parmesan Cheese

Heat enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of a large frying pan.  Add the onions and sauté over medium until translucent then add the pancetta and sauté for another two minutes.  Add the figs and sauté until the pancetta begins to crisp.  Add the white wine to the pan, and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, then add salt and hot pepper flakes to taste.  Add half a cup of water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the figs are soft and brown.   Cook the pasta in salted boiling water, and when it is al dente drain it, reserving half a cup of the starchy cooking water.  Add the fettucine to the frying pan, along with the reserved pasta water and toss in some grated parmesan.  Stir together to coat the pasta in the fig sauce, and serve hot with more cheese on top.     Buon Appetito!

_3

 

If you know any other methods for ripening figs please share them with us.  And, keep us posted if you try any of the ripening methods we mentioned here – we’d love to know how they worked for you!

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Comments

Leslie

I live in Florida. Some years the tree doesn’t lose its leaves. It is now November and there are firm green leaves. And, I have figs on it now (November) from last May. Without a winter season, the tree always seems confused. Any thoughts on what to do when It i is almost always more than 60 degrees and you still have free figs hanging on?

Reply
Mary Menniti

Hi Leslie,
Depending upon where you live in Florida, chill hours may be the problem. Even though the fig is considered to be a warm climate fruit, it still needs a minimum number of hours in dormancy induced by cold weather to produce and ripen fruit. This is true of all deciduous fruit trees. During this time they store energy to produce the next season’s crop. Chilling requirements vary depending on the variety of fig tree, but they generally require 100 to no more than 300 hours below 45 degrees. You may want to try to determine the number of chill hours in your area and choose another variety of fig that is more suited to your climate. Another possible issue with your tree is that it may be a Smyrna variety that requires pollination by a small Blastophaga wasp gathering pollen from a male fig tree called a Caprifig for the fruit to mature. However, most varieties of fig trees, especially in the East, are Common Figs that are self-pollinating. Good luck and keep us posted!

Reply
Leslie

I in southern Florida – zone 10… and I cannot remember the last time I saw frost. However, even in absence of cold weather remembered, there have been good figs years. How does pruning the tree define the fruit? Do all branches (new and old) bear fruit?

Reply
Mary Menniti

Some varieties of fig trees produce two crops, an early crop that is set in the fall and ripens mid-summer on last season’s growth, and a second crop that forms on new branch growth and ripens late in the summer. Some trees only have the late season crop that grows on new growth. Pruning in the fall will eliminate the first crop if your tree produces one, and pruning too late in the spring will eliminate the late summer crop.

Reply
kay ritchey

My fig tree is in Northern California which has been suffering a heat wave. Today was 108 degrees. There are 3 figs on the 3 1/2′ tree. They are approx 1 1/2 ” in diameter. They are hard as rocks. Last year I harvested and ate 5 very delicious fruits. I am watering at least once every other day, sometimes every day because of the heat. I haven’t fertilized it since it was planted 2 years ago. Any suggestions? Thanks

Reply
Mary Menniti

Yes, it’s been very hot in N. California. Watering your young tree often is a good idea and a couple of inches of an organic compost around the base would help as well. It is still a month or so early for the main crop of figs to ripen. Do you remember when you ate those figs last year? Some trees have already produced a first crop, with another ripening at the end August and into early September, but some trees only produce the later crop. Are the figs growing on last year’s branch growth or this year’s new growth? A first crop will be growing on last season’s wood, and the main crop will be growing on wood produced this season. Good luck and keep us posted.

Reply
Carl

No danger of frost here, but my tree is reacting markedly differently this year from prior years. I live in Southern California. Usually, the leaves begin to yellow and fall off well AFTER the fruit has ripened and been picked. This year, I have many green figs. Not a single one has ripened yet. And, all of my leaves are yellowing and dropping. Need I worry or do something?

Reply
Robin

Our first crop took unusually long this year. At my local nursery they said the cooler temperatures weren’t letting our figs grow and ripen and ripen and the leaves were turning yellow. Sure enough we got a hot spell and those figs ripened right up! Coincidence or fact?

Reply
Trudie B

Often yellowing leaves mean overwatering, but i have heard lately that lack of nutrients can also do it. In my experience leaves of most any plant that turn yellow and then crisp brown aren’t getting enough water; too much water and leaves turn yellow and drop right off. The suggestion of a layer of organic compost/mulch is a good one and adding it not only provides some nutrients but also holds in moisture.
Probably best to do the main feeding in spring at start of growing season. I’m in the Bay Area and were supposed to have a warm spell in the coming weeks, hoping our remaining green figs get a chance to ripen before whatever’s stealing them takes any more!

Reply
JOAN BELL

I have had my fig tree for over 20 years, and have yet to eat a fig from it. Not that it doesn’t produce figs, but late in the summer, so they won’t ripen over the winter. I decided that the fig tree and I had had enough, and I cut it down last year. Well… It decided that it wasn’t going to die, and came back in full force. Again, I have many figs that came on late, and now it is October in Seattle, and they will never ripen. Any suggestions?

Reply
Susan Fuller

I live in western Colorado. My 4 fig trees in pots lost their leaves weeks ago and are dormant. Three are from suckers…branches that came up inches from the outdoor trees and had a few roots. We have Brown Turkey figs and a green variety from a tree in Mesa, Arizona. We have one of each in the ground as well, each over 15 years old and I picked ripe figs from those today (November 5th). Also, a Petite Negra in a pot ordered 3 or4 years ago which bore for the first time this year-sparsely. The pots are pulled into the unheated garage in the winter after the leaves fall off and pulled back out when spring growth is evident. We occasionally cover them with a sheet or tarp at night when a freeze is forecast after leaves begin to appear. The fruit from these trees ripen earlier than those on the larger trees in the ground and they are only about 1/4 as big, but are sweet and delicious. The trees in the ground will die back if not wrapped. New growth will come up from the roots in spring but very few figs will ripen before a hard freeze hits. To have a good harvest from these trees I cut them back so they aren’t too tall or wide to handle then gather all branches up and wrap them with twine or grape vines or whatever (branches parallel to the ground are cut off at their base) into a column-like shape then cut branch tips back (not more than about 5 ft tall) so an old quilt or a sheet and bubble wrap can cover the tree and be secured with clips or more twine. Then I put 10 or so gallon jugs of water around each tree’s base, pile leaves and small twigs between jugs and trunk then it’s all ready to be covered with plastic sheeting or a tarp. I don’t use black because I’m afraid of overheating before wraps come off. Secure everything so wind will not blow it apart. I use garden staples or tent spikes or bis rocks to attach outer covering to the ground. Unwrap when you think hard freezes are no longer a worry. If I do this, my reward is an abundance of delicious ripe figs and a few dozen that won’t ever ripen instead of less than a dozen ripe figs and hundreds of little hard figs I could never use…until THIS year when I finally looked up how to use the hard ones. I’m excited to try the fig pasta and Baby Fig Spoon Sweets. Thank you!

Reply
Laura

We had an incredibly late spring, this was the first year my figs didn’t ripen. I picked hard green figs in the cold rain and used this
recipe. Green figs are awesome and so is this recipe! While slicing them I noticed they look like baby zucchini with a baby zuke
texture. I ate a thin slice of raw green fig. It wasn’t sour at all! It was slightly sweet and full of aromatic sap. Better than
zucchini! We put some of the green figs aside to use in zucchini bread. I can think of all kinds of ways to explore uses for these
figs, but I ran out of figs before ideas. I won’t pout if they fail to ripen again.

Reply
Dennis Horgan

We live Campbell River, BC Canada. Our fig tree died back in last winter’s heavy snow fall. The old stump would not give up and we have a light crop of green figs this year. We are due for a frost any night now but the fruit is not edible yet. I may have to do the ethylene in a bag trick with a ripe banana or some apples.We have eaten all our apples and the grapes disappeared quickly this year. Dennis H

columbia

Reply
Lillian

Thank you for all this advice.
I have had some lovely big ripe figs but I now have a tree absolutely full of green figs and the weather has just turned and leaves falling off the tree.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *