Fig Lovers, Rejoice. Your Time Has Come.

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.

Meanwhile in McLean, landscape architect Ching-Fang Chen harvests as many as 1,000 figs from her plant between late August and mid-September. "I put them in egg cartons and give them to friends," she says. She is also growing ornamentals that were not considered hardy in Plant Hardiness Zone 7, which covers Washington, including a winter-flowering shrub named edgeworthia, an evergreen shrub named sweet olive and two species of viburnum more common in the South.

McConkey reports successful outdoor cultivation in central Virginia of pomegranates and a fruiting shrub from Brazil named pineapple guava.

But it is the fig phenomenon that has gardeners talking because the fruit is still coveted, even as it has become easier to grow. "It's the fruit of the gods," says Cindy Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens, a Fairfax County park west of Alexandria. Once a source of bragging rights, a healthy, fruiting fig presents a quandary: How does a fig lover harvest so much fruit growing so high?

At Green Spring Gardens, Brown decided a fig tree planted about 20 years ago had grown out of control, so she lowered its canopy from 25 to 15 feet in March, before leaf growth. It has 13 stems and is still 20 feet in spread. Most of the fruit is consumed by birds and insects, along with some two-legged marauders.

In another part of the garden, she shows off a fig shrub 14 feet high and 12 feet across that has unusual large yellow fruit, though she hasn't yet identified the variety.

Nearby, a variety named Petite Negri is growing robustly, even though it is considered marginally hardy in Washington.

In the past, McConkey has recommended four relatively hardy varieties for Washington area customers: Celeste, English Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago and Marseilles. He says it may be time for gardeners to try less-hardy varieties, especially if they live in or near the District and can find a location that is sheltered from prevailing northwest winter winds.

At his nursery, perched 1,000 feet above sea level west of Charlottesville, he got a variety called Conadria to survive and crop even though it is a hot-climate fig developed for the interior valleys of California. "Huge figs, very sweet," he says.

Sheltered by the Alexandria YMCA building in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, a fig tree has grown to almost 30 feet in height, and the ground beneath it is littered with ripening fruit. Neighbor Audrey Faden planted it in the late 1990s and says it has grown so large because of its protected site. It has a lot of fruit "up top, that the birds are eating," she says. "I don't get to them anymore."

She grew the tree from a rooted cutting supplied by another active Northern Virginia gardener, Ed Raduazo, who lives in the Stratford neighborhood near Mount Vernon. "I hate to blame everything on global warming," he says. "They say the winters are two to three degrees warmer, but they seem a lot warmer than that to me," says Raduazo, a retired patent examiner who remembers a childhood ice skating on Greenbelt Lake and on long stretches of the C&O Canal.

He has more than 40 fig trees that he keeps cut back to seven feet high. "I've gotten tired of picking them from a ladder," he says.

Carole Ann Clark keeps a stepladder near her tree at this time of year, but it reaches only so far. She has persuaded boys in the neighborhood to climb the tree with baskets to pick the fruits, which ripen at different times in the harvest. It has three trunks, the biggest eight inches thick.

For Clark, late summer means finding ways to serve the fig fruit, pairing it with prosciutto, goat cheese or blue cheese, and turning it into sweet sauces for lamb or pork. "For 2 1/2 weeks we'll get figs, and that's it," she says. "It's something we look forward to."

She holds a neighborhood party on Memorial Day and Labor Day, but in recent years the later celebration "has become a fig event."

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