Monthly Archives: October 2016

Of Italian decent

Fig tree

Fig tree

I have a fig tree (ficus something-or-another) in my backyard that I am particularly fond of. I haven’t been able to determine exactly what species of fig it is, as a search turned up more varieties of ficus than I was prepared to investigate. Bro says it is a Petite Negro. I’ll go with that.

I take very good care of my fig tree. In fact, I may worry about it more than most of the other plant life in and around the compound. You see, this fig has a long history that dates back to Italy itself.

My fig tree started out as a cutting from a tree in my grandparent’s backyard in Union, NJ., sometime in the late 1990’s. That fig tree was more of a large, prolific bush-tree, as fig trees tend to get when planted in a good location. Protected on all sides by the two story brick homes that are the norm in that section of town, it was rooted in good soil and exposed to sun for most of the day. It was a prolific bearer of fruit.

My grandparent’s fig bush-tree began as a cutting from a tree that grew in my great-grandmother’s backyard in Irvington, NJ. That tree grew from a cutting that she had brought to America with her from Italy. Not sure how she was able to do that, perhaps with a gift to the inspector of a few dried figs and some prosciutto as a snack? Then again, at the time, the inspectors at Ellis Island were more concerned with human diseases coming in-country than they were with foreign plants.

All of my grandparents children (my mother, aunt and uncle) have a cutting from that tree, as do most of the grandchildren (my sister and cousins). I might be inclined to give out a cutting or two as gifts or in trade for an equally valuable clipping, but I am stingy with them. Just can’t go gifting heirloom fig cuttings like they grow on trees, ya’ know?

Fig trees love sun – the more the better. They can tolerate some fairly poor soil, so long as they have water and sun. Not too much water, they don’t want wet feet, but my fig can slurp up a good 2-3 gallons per week, easily.

Growing a fig tree in NJ can be difficult. I would love to be able to plant my fig tree in the ground and let it achieve its full potential, but the winter wind will turn it into firewood before the spring. NJ winters are not fig-friendly and special care is needed to keep them alive. Some folks go so far as to bury their fig tree over the winter, but that is way too much work for my limited schedule and aging back.

Mine is growing in a half whiskey barrel (fitting, don’t you think?). I move it into the garage after the leaves drop in the fall, wrap up the bottom snug with corrugated cardboard and let it go dormant.

When spring arrives I expose it to as much sun as I can, until the threat of frost is past (usually after Mother’s Day, in these parts). Then I move it outside and carefully monitor the weather for the following few weeks, so as not to be surprised by a frost. If temps dip too low, or if a frost warning is issued, I build a tent and lovingly cover my fig tree with flannel blankets.

Yes, flannel blankets. Wouldn’t you like to be swaddled in flannel if you had to spend a evening outside with the threat of frost about?

That is more work than I do for any other herbaceous life, anywhere. It sounds like a chore, but if you watch the weather and don’t bring out your fig too early, you might only have to do it a couple of times. After that, the fig only needs water, a little lime and some fertilizer to take care of itself.

I’d be interested to know if the parent fig trees are still alive. I hope so. They have propagated quite a legacy.


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