Figs in the Pacific Northwest: Will My Unripe Figs Ripen?

Note: This post has been updated to reflect additional and more accurate information. I don’t think I’ve ever hosed up gardening advice quite so completely as in the first version of this post, but thankfully my readers are amazing and set me straight. Thank goodness for community!


I’m getting lots of questions about figs right now!

One reader asks:

I just moved into a new home in Oregon in May and we have a lovely mature fig tree, though I am not aware of the variety. The tree is brimming with figs, but none are ripe. When is the typical fig harvest? I thought it was sooner, but I may be wrong. Will these ripen in the fall? Spring? Were they duds?

Another:

Do you know if unripe figs ripen off the tree?

Ah, figs in the Northwest. Such and interesting and confusing fruit, but ultimately such a joy to enjoy homegrown fresh.

Now,  I’m not a fig expert, so please chime in in the comments you can add to the knowledge base or if I’m not representing something perfectly, here, but I will do my best to explain why, at this time of year, so many people are wondering if those green hard figs on their tree are ever going to do anything!

Many (but not all) fig varieties will form two crops of figs. The first crop to ripen is called the “Breba Crop.” The breba figs form as small, hard green figs that overwinter (according to some sources) or form in late winter and early spring on the prior year’s hardwood growth after the fig experiences a period of winter dormancy.

The main season fig crop is different. It forms on the current year’s growth and grows to fully ripe in one season. Depending on how long your growing season is and how hot your climate is, main season figs might ripen anywhere from summer to late fall.

This calendar of the ripening of popular European fig varieties shouldn’t be relied upon for specific local variety ripening timing, but it shows the timing relationship between breba crop ripening (in yellow) and main crop ripening (in green).

Calendario_de_variedades

Some fig varieties set a few breba figs, some a lot and some varieties only ripen main season figs. In long season areas and if the necessary pollination needs are met (some figs need to be pollinated by special little wasps), a fig tree that puts out both flushes of fruit will ripen its breba crop on last season’s growth around mid summer, then go on to ripen the main season crop that forms on new wood grown in the same season.

Many people say that the main crop is culinarily superior to the breba crop, and commercial growers and long-season growers often prune out the breba buds or otherwise discourage the tree from putting energy that way.

My experience is that a fully ripe breba picked warm and eaten within minutes from your own tree puts a shipped-in main season fig a few days or more off the tree to shame. This is not a fruit that tolerates travel well.

In any event, those of us in the Pac NW and other short season growing areas embrace varieties that set big breba crops because our summer is just not hot or long enough to ripen the main season crop. And, perhaps because Maritime Northwest brebas mature more slowly than they would in warm-summer areas, and ripen when the tree is filled out with energy-gathering leaves, fully ripe local breba figs are a delicious and honied treat not to be overlooked.

One of the most popular fig varieties in the Pacific Northwest, the Desert King, is known for it’s large flush of brebas, which makes perfect sense in this climactic area that is dependent upon a breba crop. The Desert King is a tree with handsome spreading form, and bright green figs with strawberry-red interior. They are simply lovely.

I grow Violetta, a Brown Turkey cultivar, and have been very happy with the quality and quantity of delicious figs I’ve harvested from it. Peter’s Honey Fig is also supposed to be great in the Northwest.

A mature fig tree in the Northwest will likely put out a main crop too, and if your tree is happy it might be quite a crop. Unfortunately for us Northwest fig lovers, the main crop figs rarely ripen satisfactorily. Right now on the cusp of October that crop of full sized green figs that looks so promising is unlikely to amount to much because winter’s chill is just too close.

When the tree goes dormant, unripe main season figs will fall off the tree. Try not to panic! A new breba crop is just around the corner.

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Comments

  1. Well, it’s a good thing I asked you and didn’t pull them all off, which is what I was planning on doing in the dark last night. I’ve got a Peter’s Honey Fig, or some such non-sense, that I planted several years ago and it’s still only about 3 feet high. I really want to dig it out, but my son is attached to it (don’t ask).

    Anyway, it’s covered in these brebas things. Well, as much as a 3 feet high fig tree can be. It generally doesn’t like the winter and I’m too lazy to cover it, but maybe I’ll do something about it this year so we have a couple of figs to make it worth our while. Any suggestions of what kind of protection I should use on this runty, stunted micro fig?

    • Shouldn’t take much to protect it if it’s three feet tall. Wrap a little winter-weight reemay around it and clip it together with binder clips. On halloween, say it’s a ghost tree. Our climate doesn’t get cold enough to winter kill figs most years. If we start to drop into the teens, wrap some rope light or christmas lights around the tree under the reemay (in a way that won’t catch your house or garden on fire) and keep it turned on until the cold snap passes.

  2. Very interesting. I didn’t know about the two different crops because we grow varieties here in CA that only do the main crop (Brown Turkey and Blackjack are what I grow). Unfortunately our tree is still small and our chickens have found the fruit to be quite tasty. :/

  3. I have a Peter’s Honey fig, and it sets its breba crop in July, and the main season crop is the little hard figs that are there now. They will fall off during the winter. However, the breba crop for next year will set on old growth and in early spring you will start to see little hard figs appear. So don’t panic when the ones on there now fall off in the winter! But also don’t cut back your fig too hard, or if there is a hard freeze and it kills the older wood, because then you will not get much of a crop next summer. And for the person whose fig is only 3 feet tall – count your blessings. It won’t stay that size. Mine happily shoots up at least 10 feet a season. Yours will too, just give it a few more years.

  4. I agree with K Dennis – the main crop won’t ripen. Next year’s figs look more like this:
    http://www.growntocook.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/sized_vijg.jpg

  5. Wow, I have always wondered about that! Many people in our neighborhood have fig trees with the little green ones.

  6. So that explains it. Thanks. I had a Dessert King and felt bombarded by those babies – two big, big crops in some seasons. Only thing I ever figured out to make with them that I would actually eat and relish was Italian Fig Cookies (recipe in the Italian Baker) out of figs that I dried, reconstituted (by soaking overnight in a bit of wine or sherry or whatever you like), cooking till soft, pureed till a nice mass (might have to cook down a bit more to be dry enough to use as filling) and then, then, then, either freezing it for future cookie making or making them straight out to the delight of everyone who has ever tasted them. Fact is, I still have pouches in the freezer. But sad and honest truth is, that inherited tree came with the property and got the axe a few years back cause Dessert Kings are not my favorite and they shaded out too much of my space. The WILL get huge over time. And those suckers??? Endless. I couldn’t get to the roots cause it was in my neighbors yard (we share a fence line) so ever so often I have to clip them. But this post sorta makes me wonder if I should give them another try since I so love being Italian.

  7. I live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and I have both a Desert King and a Stella fig tree in the ground (a brown turkey and a Negronne fig in pots) and I have been harvesting main crop figs for a couple of weeks. The breba crop was ripe in late July-early August. Some years the breba crop is all that ripens. I make fig jam, especially Gloria Nichols’ (of “Laundry, Etc”) lemon-lavender-fig marmalade and my own recipe ginger-cinnamon spiced fig jam. I also dehydrate halves that have been flattened (smashed with my palm) to dry evenly. And we eat a lot fresh, often with chèvre. The trees are larger than I expected, but beautiful and easy to prune. The sap can be very irritating to skin, so gloves and long sleves are a good idea when working on the tree.

  8. I have a 30 year old fig that gets quite a bit of sun and is about 20′ tall. It was pruned one year and then we gave up. Luckily it can just do it’s thing because it has lots of space. I live in Western Washington. I have only had one crop per year ever. The figs always ripen in time for Labor Day. They continue ripening until it get too cool then the smaller, hard green figs just sit there often dropping off in the winter.
    The figs are very sweet as long as you know the perfect touch of when to pick them. Many go to waste because they are in the tree tops.
    Branches that touch the ground if cracked, dirt piled on top and then a couple of big rock sit on the branch in about October will root a new baby tree by the next spring. Since I have plant sales for animal rescue groups every year, they are very popular.
    Does anyone know of a fig that has earlier ripe figs and tastes as good?

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