Fig Lovers, Rejoice. Your Time Has Come.

There's more than enough figs to go around.
There's more than enough figs to go around. (© Purestock)
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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Carole Ann Clark is looking at the fruit-laden fig tree that dominates the side yard of her brick and clapboard home in Bethesda. "When did I put it in?" she asks. "Seven years ago, perhaps."

Incredible as it may seem, the tree has grown at a rate of about three feet a year since. It reaches from a basement wall to a second-floor window. At approximately 20 feet tall and 25 feet across, it is loaded with hundreds of soft, purple-skinned figs that have come to define early September for Clark, her husband, John Clark, and their neighbors.

"People don't believe I can have a fig tree this large" and fruitful, she says, looking up into its leafy branches. But she is not alone. Global warming, or milder winters at least, have brought the age of the mega fig tree to Washington.

Other mild-winter plants that would normally be killed or beaten back by Washington's past winters are making it, including pomegranates, the Southern muscadine grape and tender sages. But in this season of harvest, it's figs that delight and astonish owners such as the Clarks. Unlike other fruit trees, such as peaches, plums and even apples, fig trees don't need spraying to prevent pests and diseases, and the fruit is as fleeting as it is sweet and bountiful.

Once a shrub that routinely failed to sprout after a harsh winter, this fabled plant of the Bible can be found locally growing close to the mature size of its ancestors in the Middle East. Michael McConkey, a fruit tree nurseryman in Afton, Va., says it has been at least 12 winters since fig trees were knocked back in this region, and the result has been the emergence of such giants as the Clarks' variety, named English Brown Turkey.

McConkey, owner of Edible Landscaping, says the top growth of fig trees can be killed with winter temperatures as relatively warm as 20 degrees with sustained high winds. A shrub would typically regrow from suckers and take two or three years to fruit again. He has seen only some tip dieback in recent winters and says that a fig planted in a sheltered site, particularly inside the Beltway, seems a safe bet these days.

Having grown up in Adelphi in the 1960s, he says he remembers one friend with a fig tree. "It would die back every year."

Average winter temperatures at Reagan National Airport have been higher than usual in 13 of the past 18 winters, according to the National Weather Service. A 2007 report on climate change in the Northeast, produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated that winter temperatures rose at a rate of 1.3 degrees per decade between 1970 and 2000.

"In the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic region, the winters have been warming fairly dramatically," says David Wolfe, a plant ecologist from Cornell University who worked on the report.

Global warming may be good for figs, "but overall the fact that the Earth is warming up is not a good thing," says Elliott Negin, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There are too many negative consequences."

Nor are figs out of the woods, so to speak. Winters may be getting warmer, but they appear to be more volatile, Wolfe says. Swings in winter temperature can harm plants in two ways: by not allowing them to go into a protective hibernation before freezes occur or by waking them too early so that new buds and shoots are killed by frost. Another negative aspect of this, Wolfe says, is the prospect of more insect pests surviving the winter.

"There's no question that the basic trend of a longer growing season, warmer winters and reduced risk of freeze damage will settle in eventually, but in that transition period the variability of winters could lead to some serious freeze damage on some of these perennials," Wolfe says.

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