A fig to give


illustration by Ippy Patterson

by Tony Avent

When most folks decide to grow a fig, they opt for something like brown turkey fig, or at least something relatively edible. Me, I’m more interested in the ornamental figs – all members of the plant genus Ficus. Okay, I’ll admit to planting an edible fig, also, but that was for my wife, Anita, who finds the taste of figs appealing.

Most folks have encountered at least one or more type of fig at some point in their lives. Some have grown Ficus benjamina (weeping fig) or Ficus elastica (rubber plant) as houseplants. Others have photographed or marveled at massive, stalactite-like banyan trees, Ficus benghalensis, while on vacation in places like Florida. Others have grown Ficus pumila as a groundcover, and then there are many who have grown one of the many selections of Ficus carica to eat.

I’ve spent years traveling the world looking for other potentially winter-hardy ornamental figs for our climate. During those travels, I’ve seen wild Ficus carica in Crete and dwarf groundcover figs in China, but my favorite ornamental fig is the little-known Ficus gasparriniana.

My plant friend Linda Guy of Alabama first introduced me to Ficus gasparriniana in 2006 as an unknown species she had collected a few years earlier on an expedition to Sichuan, China. It took me several years to grow it large enough to be able to figure out its identity from among the other 98 fig species native to Southeast Asia. Linda’s collection appeared to be the first Western introduction of Ficus gasparriniana, which has a huge native range within elevations of 1,500 feet to 6,000 feet from Southern India to Thailand.

In our garden, Ficus gasparriniana forms a small shrub to six feet tall by three feet wide in five years, adorned with dark green, deeply-incised, oak-shaped, scabrous (sandpapery) leaves. The foliage is evergreen further south, but in our winters, the leaves usually drop by early January. During last year’s cold winter, our plant of Ficus gasparriniana died to the ground, but it returned this spring with vengeance.

While I like the shape and size of Ficus gasparriniana in the garden, the really cool aspect is the fruit. If the winter isn’t too cold, multitudes of small, snow pea-sized fruit begin to form in June and turn red in July. After cold winters, the fruit doesn’t form until mid-September. Regardless, fruit production continues until just after Christmas, making the shrub look like a pre-decorated holiday ornament in the garden. I can see a cottage industry growing these in containers to decorate for the holidays. So, is the fruit edible, you ask?  Well, as long as you’re a bird, have few taste buds left, or are on a highly restrictive diet, absolutely. Otherwise, stick to the more palatable members of the genus Ficus.