This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
We read in the Bible of "a barren Fig tree;" but of the many hundreds I have seen I know of only one instance, and that in my own orchard. I will record its strange freaks, so that if you or any of your readers have seen a similar case, I may have the benefit of your suggestion as to the cause of barrenness and the remedy. The habit of the Fig under out-door cultivation in our latitude is briefly this :
In the Spring, as the leaves unfold and the new wood forms, there is a fruit-bud in the axil of each leaf, which begins to develop and grow rapidly. This process continues until about mid-Summer or after, so that there is a succession of fruit varying in age, and ripening in their order of growth. Towards Autumn, although the wood and leaves continue to grow vigorously until frost, no fruit-buds develop, but they remain dormant as buds. These dormant buds, on the approach of Spring, begin to swell and grow off rapidly, unless it has been previously killed by an unusually severe Winter, and give us what is known as "first crop," ripening early in June. This generally is not as abundant as the later or main crop, but the fruit is larger. What is known, therefore, as"first crop" is the result of fruit-buds formed the Autumn before, and remaining dormant through the Winter. The second or main crop is from buds of the present growing season.
Now for the case of my barren Fig tree. In the Autmn of 1873, when I took possession of my present residence in Aiken, I found this a well grown tree, some 10 or 12 feet high, with several trunks or branches from 4 to 5 inches in diameter, quite large enough to have been in bearing for several years. It had been somewhat neglected, but I had it well manured and pruned. During the Summer of 1874 the shoots made vigorous growth, but no fruit formed. I tried in various ways to force out the fruit-buds by pinching the terminal growth, and by the use of strong manures, but in vain. In the Spring of 1875, the fruit-buds, which should have been pushed the previous Summer, developed finely, and were fully half-grown when they were killed by a late frost. During the Summer of 1875, although there was a healthy and vigorous growth of wood and leaves, no fruit formed. In the Spring of 1876 the same thing was repeated. At the approach of warm weather, the axil of every last year's leaf pushed out its fruit-bud, and there was promise of an abundant"first crop;" but again a severe Spring frost, coming after an unusually mild Winter, killed not only the fruit, but injured the tree to some extent.
Again no fruit was developed in the Summer of 1876.
This is the first example of a barren Fig tree (i. e., barren of Summer fruit) I have met with. The proximate cause seems to be want of excitability, and consequent non-development of the fruit-buds during the growing season. What could have caused the change in the usual habits of the Fig, I am at a loss to conjecture. This is the Lemon Fig (as I ascertained by one or two fruits which partly escaped the effects of frost), the variety most commonly cultivated in Charleston, hut which does not succeed here so well as the Celestial and Brown Turkey. These two last named I have found to be the best for our climate; both hardy, good bearers, and quality of fruit excellent. The main crop of Celestial begins to ripen about 1st of July, and continues for a month. Brown Turkey ripens early in August, and continues into September. They both occasionally, when the Winters are mild, bear a small number of"first crop "fruit. The Fig being a dioecious plant, we have, of course, only the female in cultivation, and the seeds are immature. The fleshy receptacle swells out and becomes a luscious fruit, but for want of proper fecundation the seeds are defective.
Do you know of any male Fig plant in this country? It was said many years ago that there was one in New Orleans. If we could raise new seedlings, there might be good prospects of improving our stock, and introducing more hardy varieties.