The Sugar Figs of Florida
Figs are a sneaky little bunch. Delicately sweet, wonderfully brimming with seedy texture, and terribly hard to identify. The most common variety grown in the U.S. are Black Mission followed by Brown Turkey and then Green Kadota, but there are literally hundreds of other varieties. Figs grow on a ficus tree (ficus carica, a member of the Mulberry family), and because a single variety can have multiple leaf patterns that change with age, sometimes the only way to determine what kind of fig you're picking is to have both a leaf and ripe fruit in hand at the same time for identification.
Making matters trickier yet is understanding when figs actually come into season. Whether in California or Florida, fig trees generally bear fruit in two crops. A "breba" crop (in early summer) followed by a main crop (mid-to-late summer through fall). Breba crops form on the tree's growth from a previous year. The main crop, or "new wood" crop, grows as one would expect -- on the tree's new growth. It's not entirely impossible that the appearance of fruit from one crop to the next can vary.
In Northeast Florida (and throughout the South), culinary adventurers are well-advised to be on the lookout for one particular variety of fig that's exceptionally well-suited to our region called the Celeste Fig. Celeste Figs, also known as sugar figs, are green at the start, but develop deep purple hues as they ripen to maturity, generally beginning in early July. They are delicate to the touch (as most figs are) and ridiculously sweet; perfect for desserts and preserves, or even for eating -- straight from a tree.
And speaking of eating things straight from a tree, fig trees (although deciduous and bare through the winter months) make excellent additions to any edible landscaping project. They are fairly resistant to bugs and disease -- and generally return high yields of fruit. A win-win for gardeners and home cooks. That is, if you can get to them before the squirrels and birds.
There are oodles of ways to enjoy fresh figs. They can be grilled or preserved, baked into desserts, or served along side nuts, cheeses and salted meats. A word of caution, however, about working with fresh figs in the kitchen. They never last long! Not only because they're so tasty (and tend to get eaten quickly), but also because once they're picked, their shelf-life is limited. If you stumble into a windfall of figs this summer, be sure to make a plan for consuming or preserving them in batches fairly quickly. They keep best at room temperature with plenty of air flowing around them. Keeping them refrigerated may prolong their life a bit, but the chilled temperatures will also dull their flavor -- so best to limit their fridge time, when possible.
For more information on growing Figs in Florida, visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension Website.