Heirloom Figs

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(Ficus carica)

At The Fruit Forest we grow almost 40 different, named varieties of heirloom figs. Why so many? Because each variety has its own, unique characteristics.

Nineteenth century nurserymens’ catalogues listed dozens of fig varieties, many of which are now lost. Each variety had something different to recommend it – for example:

  • early, late or mid-season ripening
  • size
  • skin colour
  • pulp colour
  • good qualities for drying
  • good characteristics for jam-making
  • best eaten fresh
  • differences in flavour
  • differences in sweetness
  • differences in juiciness

These days only a small handful of fig varieties are sold commercially. In the plant nurseries, for example, you will generally find White Adriatic, Preston Prolific, Brown Turkey and Excel. In the fruit-shops you will generally find figs with vague names like ‘Black Fig’, which gives no clue as to the fruit’s heirloom name or story. And each heirloom fig does have a story, also called its ‘provenance’.figs 2

Take the Mission Fig: more than two centuries ago, in 1768, Franciscan missionaries voyaged from the Balearic Islands in Spain to San Diego in Southern California, U.S.A. They carried with them some cuttings from their favourite fig tree. Father Junipero Serra planted these cuttings at the San Diego mission settlement, and the cultivar became known as ‘ Mission’.

The Franciscans propagated this fig in the subsequent missions they established along the California coast. It was so delicious and so prolific that the early padres and missionaries in the Pacific coast States cultivated no other variety of fig. ‘Mission’ later became the main commercial variety planted throughout California.

It was brought to Australia during the latter part of the 19th century when, especially after the gold rushes, there was great uncertainty about which cultivars of fruit would succeed in the Australian colonies. In response, fruit nurserymen made concerted effort to import as many different varieties of fruits from the rest of the world as quickly as possible. Cuttings of a large numbers of fig cultivars were imported from all over the world.

At the Fruit Forest we are growing the amazingly delicious fig ‘Mission‘, or ‘Black Mission’ as it is sometimes called.  Some of our other figs include:

  • Black Sicilian. Synonyms: Sicilian, Sal’s, Sal’s Fig, Corleone, Fico Di Capo, Fico Nera, Verna Grosso, Agrigenta. Skin colour: Black. Pulp colour: Red. Description: Small to medium fruit, very juicy and sweet.
  • Smyrna. Synonyms: Calimyrna, Sanlop, Sarilop, Banana, Long Of August. In Australia it was offered for sale in fruit catalogues by Railton in 1880. In 1896 it was recorded as growing at
    Burnley by the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria. Goodman’s offered it for sale in 1911, Nobelius in 1931, and Levian in the early 20th century. Smyrna was also listed by Ikin as being in the N.S.W., South Australia and Victorian state fruit collections in 1974. To add to Smyrna’s Australian fame, some time between 1873 and 1960 it was faithfully replicated in three dimensions by being modelled in wax and hand-painted. One of more than 1800 realistic wax fruit and vegetable models, it is currently exhibited the Scienceworks Museum, 2 Booker St Spotswood, Victoria, Australia. Skin colour: Yellow. Pulp colour: amber to light strawberry. Description: A fruit of medium size, very sweet. Its skin turns from pale green to golden yellow when ripe and it has strawberry to red pulp. Can be glazed, eaten fresh, dried or made into jam.
  • Purple Vigilante. ‘The Purple Vigilantes’ is a 1938 American Western film. This fig was obtained by a Western Australian fig collector, who passed on some cuttings to private growers in Victoria.
  • Archipal. Synonyms: Archipel, Arachipel, De L’archipel, Figue Grise, Ronde Noire, Hardy Prolific, L’archipel, Blanche, Italian Honey, Lattarula, Lemon, White Marseilles, Rust, Conadria.
    Conflicts: Sometimes confused with Neveralla, Osborn’s Prolific, Osborne, and Osborn. In the U.S.A. this name appears to belong to a very different cultivar. The confusion is exacerbated by the wide range of synonyms, meaning anything from ‘Round Black’ (Rond Noir) to ‘White’ (Blanche). Provenance: Probably France. Australian Archipal stock was originally derived from importations from U.S.A. via N.S.W. Skin colour: Greenish-yellow. From Rare Fruit South Australia: ‘Skin is thin with reddish ribbed stripes, bronze with violet tinge or dark reddish brown’.
    Pulp colour: Honey/opaline. From Rare Fruit S.A.: ‘Pulp is amber coloured, very sweet and almost seedless.’ Description: A medium to large fig with a very thin, edible skin. Resistant to spoilage.
  • Italian Honey. Synonyms: Figo Bianco, Blanche, Lemon, White Marseille, White Marseilles, Italian Golden, Honey Fig. See also Florentine and La Royale.
    Provenance: Italy. Hart lists this cultivar as growing at Hillside Farm, W.A., in 2001. Skin colour: Greenish to golden. Pulp colour: Ivory-cream to honey-amber. Description: Medium to large fruit with very sweet lemony flavour.
  • Conadria. Synonyms: Adriatic Hybrid, Verdone, Verdone Hybrid, Red Conadria, Contessina. Provenance: This is an American hybrid from the renowned fig breeder, Ira Condit. The first artificial hybrid fig in the world, it was released from the breeding program in Riverside, California, U.S.A. in 1956. Conadria is one of Dr. Condit’s varieties which were selected on the basis of being crack- and split-resistant. Most have a small eye. All have very high sugar content and are very resistant to decay. Skin colour: Yellow to light green, with a slight purple blush. Pulp colour: Strawberry. Description: A medium to large pyriform fruit – the average weight is 48 grams (1.7 oz.) High sugar content. Juicy, with excellent flavour, sweet and mild. Fruit resists spoilage in rainy weather and has a small, tight eye so it rates well for insect resistance. Skin cracks all over but does not split. Flesh is firm.
  • Brown Bell. Pyriform in shape, with a long neck, some ribbbing, and brown skin.
  • St Dominique Violette. Synonyms: Saint Dominique Violette, St Dominique de Violette. Provenance: A French cultivar listed in the report by George Neilson for the RVHS gardens at Burnley in 1875. Still being grown there in 1896. Listed in Goodman’s Fruit Catalogues of 1905 – 1911, by Law Sumner in 1915 and in old mail-order catalogues up until the 1930s. Skin colour: dark violet/purple. Pulp colour: pink. Description: Large fruit, great flavour. Other information: There is a wax replica fig called “Saint Dominique Violet” at the Science Works Museum in Victoria, Australia.
  • Black Genoa. Synonyms: Nigra, Negro d’Espagne, Noire de Languedoc, Black Geneva. Provenance: Hogg (1884) writes: This is the large black fig so extensively grown in Languedoc and Provence. Skin colour: Dark purple, almost black and covered with a thick blue bloom. Pulp colour: Yellowish under the skin, but dark red towards the interior. Description: Long, conical, obovate fruit, medium sized. Juicy, with an excellent, sweet and very rich flavour. Ripens early in summer. May not be suitable for drying.
  • White Genoa. Synonyms: Blanche; Figue Blanche; Ford’s Seedling; Genoa; Lattarula; Lemon; Marseilles; White Geneva; White Marseilles; White Naples. Facciola distinguishes between
    White Genoa and White Marseilles. Provenance: A heritage cultivar from Italy. Listed in Railton’s catalogue in 1880 and Goodman’s catalogue in 1914. Skin colour: Green to greenish-yellow mottled with white. Pulp colour: Amber to reddish-pink. Description: A uniquely flavoured, tender fig with sweet flesh and few seeds. White Genoa has a milder flavour, not quite as rich for those who don’t like the really intense fig flavour. Some describe it as a lemony flavour. Ripens mid-season. Medium to large in size, pyriform. Good for eating fresh, drying, preserving or making jam.
  • Blue Provence. Synonyms: Blue Province. Provenance: France. Offered in Goodman’s Fruit Catalogue of 1911 to 1915. Skin colour: Blue. Flesh Colour: Blue-purple. Description: Brunning’s catalogue of 1916 describes it as having large fruit with a true blue skin colour, ripening late. According to Ikin in the N.S.W., fruit collection in 1974. Rance says that it is a mid-season variety with ‘squat pyriform shaped fruit with a blue/violet skin showing prominent ribs, an open eye and blue tinged/purplish meat with red seeds. Very soft and sweet.’
    Other information: Rare fig variety, once grown more widely in Australia, offered for sale in in this country occasionally. The tree is large and vigorous with exceptional large ornamental leaves. Ripens mid- to late-season.

Want to know more about heirloom figs? Read this book!

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