My grandparents established, in the early part of the twentieth century, a true oasis in the desert on their homestead in about 35 miles west of Phoenix, growing many things that others believed at the time wouldn't grow in this climate. A citrus orchard dominated the acreage near the house, with rows of grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, navel orange and Valencia orange trees. Almond trees lined the lane leading to the house and an entryway arbor was covered with a pink climbing rose. Queen's Wreath covered a patio that spanned the length of the house, and several walnut trees, date palms, a pomegranate and a goldfish pond surrounded the side entry. There was a vineyard, a vegetable garden, beehives, chickens, turkeys, dairy cows, and occasionally a lamb or a goat, and one lone Mission fig tree!
That fig tree (Ficus carica) provided the grand kids with treats every June and October. At the time, we didn’t know that the June crop, called the breba crop, and was the smaller crop of the two, or that Spanish explorers introduced figs to the Southwest. One thing we did know from experience was that the figs had to be ripe when picked, because saving them for another day wouldn’t ripen an immature fig. We also knew that ripe figs eaten directly off the tree were the best treats in the world.
Last year I planted a 5-gallon Brown Turkey fig in my garden. I hesitated about buying it—it was almost $100—but the nurseryman assured me that the Brown Turkey, a small hardy variety, was the best choice for the low desert (Figs originated in the Mediterranean, so many varieties do well here.) He said for good fruiting I should severely prune it each winter for a heavy main crop. I was glad to hear that because I wanted to keep it small.
With Ficus carica there’s no worry about pollination as edible figs are self-pollinating. The “seeds” that give the fig its gritty texture are not really seeds, but actually unfertilized ovaries. Yikes! Besides tasting so good, figs are a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, Vitamin B6, and potassium. They are low in fat and two figs provide seven grams of fiber, more than any other common fruit or vegetable. And, even better, three medium figs contain only 110 calories.
Last week I found a ripe fig the size of nickel on the breba crop of my tiny tree. That first taste of fig from my garden reminded me of all the wonderful times we had as kids, picking figs at my grandmother’s desert oasis.