A Short History of Fig Growing in Britain

Fig growing in the Britain goes back a long way and some suggest the plant may even have been introduced here by the Romans. However, although fig seeds have been found associated with Roman settlements in Britain, these seeds are thought to be from figs that have been pollinated; something that suggests the seeds were from imported dried fruit grown where fig wasps exist rather than grown here.

The first fig tree thought to have been planted here is attributed to Cardinal Pole (later Archbishop of Canterbury) who planted a tree in the garden of the Palace at Lambeth around 1552. This tree was likely to have been brought back from Italy by Pole who had lived there for some time. Although the exact cultivar of fig he planted isn’t known, ‘White Marseilles’ fig trees were recorded as growing in the Palace gardens in 1700’s and may well have originated from Pole’s original tree.

Although figs were apparently quite commonly grown here throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the books of the period record very few varieties. Thomas Hill in 1579 mentions the ‘Greater Bleu’ and the ‘Dwarf Blue’ as the best to plant in England, but only against a wall.

Parkinson, writing in 1629 mentions two tall growing types. The ‘Fig of Algarua’ (Albania) bore ‘blewish’ (blue) fruit of good quality while the other which ‘may be the white ordinary kinde that commeth from Spaine’ was a poor cropper. He also describes a ‘dwarfe kinde of Figge tree, not growing much higher then to a mans body or shoulders, bearing excellent good Figges and blew…’ however, this one was more tender and required to be grown in a tub and carried into the house during winter.

The dwarf blue fig is now thought to be the French cultivar ‘Figuier Nain’ which is known to have very short shoots with closely packed buds and quite large blue fruit.

Later, in the eighteenth century, many different kinds of fig including ‘Brown Ischia’, ‘Black Ischia’, ‘Malta’, ‘Madonna’ (‘Brunswick’), ‘Large White Genoa’ (’White Marseilles’) and the ‘Murrey’ or ‘Brown Naples (‘Brown Turkey’) were imported from France, Spain and Italy. They were planted on the south walls of stately houses whose aristocratic owners appeared to be the only ones to appreciate them… the lower classes having little regard for figs and often derided them, as in the common saying ‘not worth a fig’. Interestingly, ‘Brunswick’, ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘White Marseilles’ are still the most commonly grown figs in Britain.

By 1826 The Royal Horticultural Society listed 75 fig cultivars in their collection at Chiswick, but many were identical to one another but known by a different name (a synonym). This irritating problem is very common with figs and is still with us today, and will be until genetic fingerprinting becomes more widespread.

Although growing figs inside a greenhouse or against a south wall has always been recommended in the UK, and is still the best way to ensure they ripen in the north of the country, the observation that figs grown in the south of England often succeed as orchard trees has been made by several experts over the years. Obviously, growing figs outdoors will only allow the production of an early, or breba crop as the British summer is usually too short and cool to allow main crop figs to ripen. If main crop figs are also wanted, then a greenhouse, perhaps with the provision of heat, is usually essential.

In the early part of the nineteenth century several writers commented upon fig trees being grown as standard trees at Tarring, near Worthing, on the Sussex coast. The Tarring Fig Gardens have a long history of being a commercial market garden and stopping off point for visitors to the area. They are thought to have been established around 1745 with cuttings taken from fig trees in a nearby garden that had once belonged to Thomas à Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his assassination in the cathedral in 1170. While it’s true that Tarring is closely associated with Thomas à Becket, a plaque on one tree that states “The Remains of The Old Fig Tree Planted by Thomas à Becket – about AD 1162” seems rather far fetched… although it no doubt impressed the tourists!

In their heyday during the late nineteenth century the Tarring Fig Gardens contained around one hundred fig trees the size of large standard apple trees and were said to produce 1200 figs per day from August to October which could be sold to visitors or sent to Covent Garden market in London.

Unfortunately the Fig Gardens are no longer the hive of activity they once were as they’re now privately owned and closed to the public. However, the local authority arranges an open day once a year, usually in early July, for those interested in glimpsing what remains of one of the largest fig orchards ever planted in the UK.

The demise of the Tarring Fig Gardens didn’t signal the end of interest in growing figs commercially in England. A fruit farmer called Justin Brooke took up the challenge in 1951 by importing several different figs from France as a way of extending the range of fruits he grew. Mr Brooke owned a 300 acre commercial fruit farm near Newmarket, Suffolk, growing the usual sorts of fruit but was blessed with an experimental frame of mind and was particularly sceptical of the conventional view that figs were hardly worth growing outdoors in the central areas of Britain. Having read ‘The Compleat Gardner’, an English translation of Jean - Baptiste de La Quintinie’s book ‘Instructions for Fruit and Vegetable Gardens, with a Treatise on the Orange’ and being impressed at what the gardener to Louis XIV had to say about how he grew figs at Versailles, he devoted part of his farm to trial plantings of outdoor fig orchards (and also peaches and apricots). He subsequently published his findings in a book entitled ‘Figs – Out of Doors’.

This book is of interest to anyone growing figs in a climate similar to that of Great Britain and is well worth reading for its practical suggestions. The main point made by Mr Brooke is that success in growing figs in Britain is to ensure that vigorous, lush growth is restricted and short stubby fruitful growth encouraged by various cultural techniques. Brooke states that fruitful growth should have no more than a 3 inch (7.5cm) distance between the nodes, or leaves, on the stem.

He found that planting in specially constructed concrete ‘boxes’ that are sunk into the ground dwarfs figs but the cost in materials and labour makes them unsuitable for mass plantings. He also found that a very heavy clay soil can retard growth to an acceptable level by itself, particularly if feeding is kept to an absolute minimum.

However, the technique he favours above all is to remove a complete ring of bark, about half an inch in (1.3cm) width, from the main stem of a young fig tree, and to then replace it upside down and cover in the same way as covering a conventional graft. This works because the vascular tissue of the phloem, found just underneath the bark, which transports the products of photosynthesis (sugar) throughout the plant has polarity. In other words it doesn’t work as efficiently in transporting food to the root system if turned upside down resulting in a sort of modified ring barking effect but without the danger of killing the plant. Apparently the effect is quite long lasting and reduces the vigour of the fig tree markedly, giving the short compact growth which leads to fruit production. In addition Brooke noted that such sturdy growth is also more cold hardy and so less prone to frost damage in winter.

Justin Brooke died in 1963 and his visionary outdoor peach and fig orchards are now all gone, replaced once more by conventional crops. Sadly, to my knowledge no-one else has taken up the challenge of growing figs commercially in Britain… and certainly not as an outdoor orchard crop.

Books used or referred to:

Cultivated Fruits of Britain ~ Their Origin and History. F.A. Roach. Published Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985

The Profitable Arte of Gardeninge. Thomas Hill. Published London, 1574 & 1579

Paradisi in Sole. John Parkinson. Published London, 1629

The Compleat Gardner. John Evelyn. Published London, 1693

Figs ~ Out of Doors. Justin Brooke. Published Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954

© Clive Simms - 2010  (click here to contact the author)