Fabulous Figs Featured in California Collection
Black Mission figs, one
of the most important fig
varieties, are shown here
packed for the fresh market
at DeBenedetto Farms in
Remember the first time you tasted a fig? Maybe you plucked one from
a sturdy old tree in your backyard. Or perhaps a friend shared a soft,
chewy cookie filled with the sweet fruit.
The kinds of figs you've enjoyed are among those growing today at a
special orchard in northern California. It is a fig genebank, a living
collection of more than 100 figs from around the world. Most are specialty
varieties of edible Ficus carica figs. The genebank ensures that
the genes of these figs and their wild relatives don't get lost as new
varieties replace older, heirloom ones.
Part of what's formally known as the ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Fruit and Nut Crops, the fig collection has been dubbed "a Noah's Ark of figs." It includes familiar and unusual varieties that thrive in warm, dry climates like California's. Figs share space in the orchard with a host of other cropsamong them almonds, walnuts, olives, peaches, nectarines, and persimmons. All are under the care of curator Charles J. Simon, an ARS horticulturist.
Panachée, an unusual
at the ARS National Clonal
Established in 1981, the genebank is headquartered at Davis, California,
just outside the capital city of Sacramento. The orchard itself is in
Winters, a short commute from Simon's office, laboratory, and greenhouses.
The collection is made up of commercially grown varieties like Calimyrna,
Adriatic, Mission, and Kadota, and of unnamed stock, known only by numbers.
It ranks as one of the worlds largest living assortments of edible figs.
A sister collection of inedible figs from wet, humid, subtropical regions is kept at an ARS genebank in Miami, Florida. Both stations are part of a nationwide network of plant genebanks where seeds, whole plants, and other specimens of familiar crop plants and their exotic, rare, and oddball botanic cousins are safeguarded for our future. Called accessions, the plants are tended, catalogued, studied, and shared with others.
| Unique Specimens From America
The fig collection includes more than 300 trees, ranging from 1 to
20 years old and 2 to 20 feet tall. "These are very hand some trees,"
Simon comments. "The bark on most of them is smooth and sil very
gray. The limbs twist around quite a bit, giving the trees a somewhat
sculptured look. The leaves are usually large, maybe as much as a foot
in diameter. On most varieties, the leaves are attractively lobed."
This orchard extravaganza of figs constitutes the entire collection,
with only one exceptionFicus pumila. "This relatively
small, viney fig is growing up a trellis outside one of our greenhouses,"
Simon points out. "It was futile to grow it in the orchard with
the big trees because it acts like a vine, not a tree. Without the support
of a trellis, it would pretty much lie on the ground. Also, it isn't
quite cold-hardy enough for our area. By putting it next to a greenhouse,
it gets enough heat."
Figs were cultivated as early as 5000 B.C. in what is today the Middle
East. But one of the most recentand most importantdo nations
to the collection came from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic that's
just north of Afghanistan. A financially strapped research station there
sent cuttings of its prized figs to Simon to ensure that they would
surviveeven if that station didn't.
Simon notes, "This collection of 14 figs is especially important
because it comes from a region where figs are thought to originate.
This group is therefore likely to harbor greater natural genetic diversity
than commercial figs that, over the centuries, have had many of their
traits bred out."
Other exotic figs have been donated to the genebank by members of California
Rare Fruit Growers, Inc., one of the country's most active groups of
professional and hobbyist growers of unusual, hard-to-find fruits and
Who uses the collection? "Mainly fig breeders, researchers, and nursery managers interested in finding figs suitable for their climates and customers," Simon remarks. "We send out hundreds of cuttings every year. Most requests come from within the United States. But we've also sent shipments to Belgium, Belize, China, India, Israel, and Singapore, among other places."
"The figs most people know best are the commercial varieties that
have dark flesh or pulp and are typically very sweet," explains
Simon. "But figs come in many colors, and not all figs are sweet.
Some are nearly sour."
Their names are as varied as the fruits themselvesBrunswick,
Pied de Boeuf, Pastiliere, Monstrueuse, Nazarti, Rattlesnake Island,
Genoa, and California Brown Turkey, for instance.
Among the most distinctive figs in the collection, Simon notes, are
Violette de Bordeaux and Panachée. "Violette de Bordeaux,"
he says, "has purple skin and brilliant red flesh. It tastes like
the best raspberry jam you've ever eaten, and is loaded with aroma,
"Panachée is a robust, highly fruitful tree. But what really
sets it apart from other figs is its beautiful, bright-yellow skin.
Each Panachée has green stripes, called ribs, that run from the
stem down to the bottom of the fruit, like the longitudinal lines on
a globe. Inside, it's fire-engine red, with a delicate, strawberry-like
These two superb figs and all the other accessions are listed in the
genebank's online catalog, available at http://www.ars-grin.gov/dav/ficus.html.
Most figs grown commercially in the United States are sold for making
into a sweet, rich paste for fig bars or other baked goodies. Others
are sold dried, alongside dates or other dried fruits. Still others
are sold canned. And even though figs are highly perishable, some are
sold for fresh-market. They can be added to a compote or used to make
a warm sauce for vanilla ice cream, for example. They're also ideal
for gourmet dishes such as lemon-fig chicken, fig-walnut loaf bread,
or a pizza topped with figs, olives, ricotta cheese, caramelized onions,
and pancetta ham or bacon.
Turkey leads the world in fig production. The California crop83
million pounds in 2001is second. Figs are high in fiber and are
a good source of several essential minerals, including magnesium, calcium,
and potassium.By Marcia
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources,
Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS National Program (#301) described
on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Charles J. Simon is with the USDA-ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Fruit and Nut Crops, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616; phone (530) 752-6504, fax (530) 752-5974.
|"Fabulous Figs Featured in California Collection" was published in the August 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.|