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Fig Tree Defies NatureMaster Gardener Scoop – November 16, 2016

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By Leora McTall,
Master Gardener

When fig trees come to mind, we gardeners in Southern Illinois think of tropical houseplants with pretty leaves. As for the fruit, that comes from the grocery store in the produce section or as a Fig Newton in the cookie aisle.

Whether a quirk of nature or a special variety, a 15' x 20' fig tree is growing in the yard of JoAnn and Gib Hayes in Centralia and has been thriving there for over 50 years. It all began when the Hayes' friend brought a small fig tree from Italy as a gift, which Gib planted in his mother's yard. It has lived outdoors with no insulation from the winter, never "trenched" or wrapped for protection, and certainly wasn't brought into the house for safety from the cold.

Ficus carica is known as the "common fig.” The three most hardy varieties are "Brown Turkey,” which won the Royal Horticulture Society Award of Merit and is listed by Stark Brothers Nursery as "hardy to 10 degrees F." Also, "Chicago Hardy" and "Celeste" varieties are offered by Stark Brothers. But we are really close to the edge of hardiness, so one should plant the tree in a protected area of the yard and even then, be wary of its ability to survive.

Evidently, fig trees have been growing in New York since the mid 1800's when many were brought over by Italian immigrants. But in the winter, these figs would have to be heavily insulated if growing outside or brought inside, unlike their temperate homeland growing conditions.

Peter Hatch, who served as director of Monticello Gardens for 35 years, says "Virginia is about as far north as figs will grow. Jefferson planted his figs against a south-facing wall to benefit from the radiant heat.”

When Washington County Master Gardeners Will and Linda Summers lived in California, their neighbor had fig trees which were considered nuisance trees. Climate makes the whole difference.

"The edible fig is one of the first plants that was cultivated by humans,” according to Wikipedia. This is probably where Eve came into the picture, resulting in her "leafy" attire.

A friend of JoAnn and Gib is often seen standing by their tree munching on ripe figs. They are glad to share because of the abundance of fruit, and there would be even more except for the arrival of winter.

There are many varieties of fig trees, and we will probably never know what variety grows in the Hayes' yard, but its presence is a reminder that Mother Nature is in charge, and we humans should just appreciate the beauty of the fig tree and the tasty fruit it provides.

If anyone would like to become a Master Gardener, there will be an informative Meet & Greet at the Washington County Extension office in Nashville on Thursday, Nov. 17, from 10:00  a.m. to 12:00 p.m.. to learn about training dates and location, topics for classes and volunteer requirements.  Local staff and Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer questions.  The training classes start in January 2017.  For more information call 618-327-8881.

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Fig Tree Defies Nature