Chicago Hardy Fig: Fruit For Many Climates

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One of the oldest cultivated crops, figs have been a staple food for years. There’s many cultivars, but the Chicago hardy fig is one that’s growing in popularity. Surprisingly cold-hardy, this tree can tolerate cooler climate conditions than other fig trees.

But it’s also really good in warmer, Mediterranean-type climates. And because of its wide range of climate tolerances, it’s able to be grown in much of the continental US. In areas where it’s still too cool in the winter months, it can be container-grown and brought indoors.

Figs have a huge part in world history, in part because of how easy they are to grow. The Chicago hardy fig has a great range and is easier than most. Let’s go over everything you’ll need to get a hearty harvest from this hardy tree, which you can find at PlantingTree.com!

Excellent Products For Chicago Hardy Fig Care:

Overwintering Supplies For Colder Climates:

Quick Care Guide

Bensonhurst purple fig
A full-sized fig tree can be kept short for ease of harvesting. Source: PlantingTree
Common Name(s)Chicago hardy fig, Bensonhurst purple fig
Scientific NameFicus carica
Height & Spread10-15′ tall, 9-12′ canopy width
Zones6-10, may survive as low as zone 5
LightFull sun best, partial shade OK
Water:Moderate, but don’t overwater
SoilOrganically-rich, well-draining moist soils
FertilizerCompost or balanced 5-5-5 slow-release
PestsRoot knot nematodes, scale, aphids, mites
DiseasesLeaf spots, blights, rusts

All About Bensonhurst Purple Fig

Ripe Chicago hardy figs
When ripe, the Chicago hardy fig fruit is a deep purplish-brown. Source: PlantingTree

Figs are an unusual crop, and I personally adore them!

The fruit we love to eat is actually inverted flowers. The pear-shaped fig fruit is filled with these flowers, each with its own hard fruit called an achene. Achenes give figs their crunch, and the flowers provide the fruit’s pulp and sweetness.

This Mediterranean fruit is one of the earliest forms of cultivated crops. And with the Chicago hardy fig, people in areas outside its normal range are able to grow it!

The Chicago hardy fig, also called the Bensonhurst Purple fig, is far from the only cultivar. But it’s prized for its tolerance to colder conditions. Most figs only grow in growing zones 7-9, but this one can tolerate temperatures from zones 6-10. Sometimes they’ll even survive the chilly climate of zone 5.

Its purplish-brown, medium-sized fruit is delightful. Beautifully sweet and fine-grained pink flesh hides within its skin, just waiting to be consumed. And in warmer environments, it may not produce just a single crop of fruit. It can sometimes produce an early crop before the main fruiting.

The fig’s older bark is a silvery-grey color that’s quite attractive. New stems have a greenish hue. Its leaves have three to five lobes and are hairy and rough on top, smooth on the bottom. These leaves can reach sizes of up to 10″ in length.

In the spring, non-showy, greenish “flowers” will form near the tips of branches. These will develop from fruiting buds. The fruit subsequently forms from those points. The main harvest will ripen in the late summer or early fall, but an early crop of winter hold-outs may be ready in June.

As established trees, they are drought tolerant due to extremely deep roots. Be careful where you plant your fig, as the roots can cause damage to water or sewer pipes! Younger trees require more consistent watering in the first year or so after planting.

A beautiful plant, this hardy Chicago fig is well worth the time and energy spent.

Caring For Your Chicago Hardy Fig

Chicago hardy fig tree
A young Chicago hardy fig in its pot.

Growing a tree is a bit more complex than a normal plant, but not impossible. Following this care guide should ensure you’ll harvest figs for years to come!

Light & Temperature

Chicago hardy fig prefers full sun. Aim for 6-8 hours a day whenever possible. In warmer climates, it will tolerate partial shade as long as it gets plenty of light.

Temperature-wise, there’s a reason it’s referred to as a hardy fig! The stems are hardy to 10° F, and the roots to -20°. While they’ll lose leaves and young stems in extremely cold conditions, they’re resilient. As long as the rootstock is protected, they’ll come back in the spring.

Those in northern climates should opt for sheltered locations along a south-facing wall. This fig likes the radiated heat from the wall during the winter months. It acts like a microclimate and helps protect the tree from winds and extreme cold.

Microclimates like this can allow your fig to be grown down to zone 5. In these chilly zones, it’s better to grow your fig in a container. It can be brought indoors if conditions worsen.

Overwintered figs which are brought indoors do not need a light source while they’re dormant. You can store these in an unheated garage or shed. This keeps the worst of the cold at bay. While figs do require some chill hours, most varieties don’t need more than 100 chill hours to fruit in the next year.

Water & Humidity

Kevin with fig pre-mulching
Kevin, preparing to mulch this Chicago hardy fig to retain soil moisture.

For the first year after planting, water regularly. Aim for at least 1″ of water per week during cool weather. During the heat, you may want to water as often as every 2-3 days. Your goal is consistently moist, but not soggy, soil.

As it develops deeper roots it’ll become very drought-resistant. An older Chicago hardy fig should get about an inch of water every two weeks. Give it a bit more during hot weather, but don’t over-water. Too much water makes the fruit bland.

If you are container-growing your fig, watch the soil moisture closely. Water when the soil is dry about 2″ beneath the soil’s surface. Containers dry out much more quickly than in-ground plantings do. This is especially important during the heat of the summer!

When watering a container-grown hardy fig, water until moisture comes out of the pot’s drainage holes. If you waited too long to water and the soil is very dry, it may pour straight through. If this happens, dampen the soil, then wait a couple minutes and repeat with a more thorough watering. This gives the soil time to absorb moisture.

Your hardy fig will be tolerant of humidity as long as it gets airflow through its branches. If the tree’s canopy is too dense, airflow suffers and the tree can be susceptible to issues like leaf spots.

Soil

Planting fig tree
Make sure to amend the soil with compost before planting.

Hardy fig prefers organically-rich, well-draining soil. Most loamy soils are a good choice as they remain moist but not wet.

Work some good compost into the planting hole when planting. Your fig prefers enriched soil. Mulch well around the tree to keep the soil moist.

Fig trees are tolerant of lightly-acidic to neutral conditions. For the best and sweetest fruit, most growers aim for a range of 6.0-6.5 pH.

Fertilizer

While they like rich soil, an annual application of compost in spring is usually enough. Pull back the mulch and apply an inch or two of compost. Cover the compost again with the mulch and let it break down into the soil.

If you wish to use a commercial fertilizer, choose a balanced slow release option. 5-5-5 is a good range to go for. Apply in early spring as the first growth appears. Reapply in late spring and in midsummer. Do not fertilize in fall or winter. Your tree will be dormant for the winter months.

Propagation

Multi-trunked fig
When propagated, it’s common to see multiple trunks in a single pot.

Propagation of the Chicago hardy fig is done via tip cuttings or air layering. These methods are the most reliable.

For tip cuttings:

At the end of winter, or very beginning of spring when new growth appears, is when you’ll take the cuttings. Select a healthy tip which is 6-8″ in length and cut it just below a leaf node.

Place up to four tip cuttings into a 6″ deep pot filled with moistened sand. A 2-liter bottle with the bottom cut off makes an excellent greenhouse lid for your cuttings. You’ll need to ensure that the humidity is high around your cuttings. Keep them in a continuously warm and humid microclimate at least 70° or warmer. Make sure they have access to bright, but indirect sunlight.

Wait until both leaves and roots have developed before repotting.

For air layering:

Pick a large-diameter young twig or small branch. Peel off a 3/4″ wide ring of bark just below a leaf node.. Wrap the wound with moistened sphagnum peat moss. Use polyethylene film to hold the moss in place, secured tightly on either side of the moss. Twine or cable ties are easy to use to secure the film.

The film keeps the moisture in the moss, and the moss provides a medium into which roots can grow. Within 3-5 months, you should see signs of root development. You can then cut just below the root section and remove the cling film for planting. Avoid cutting the new roots!

There are other methods used to propagate figs. A sampling of these include transplanted sucker shoots, grafting, or from seed. These are not usually reliable propagation methods for the Chicago hardy fig. Seeds do not always produce true to variety plants. Suckers may or may not take root, and are not as reliable as cuttings. Grafting a hardy Chicago fig branch onto other rootstock is problematic as well. Other rootstocks may not be as resilient to cold as the Chicago fig is.

About Fruit Production

Unripe figs forming
Unripe figs will be green in color while developing. Source: yummysmellsca

The hardy Chicago fig is self-pollinating, so you only need one tree to produce. Having two near each other may increase harvest size, but isn’t absolutely necessary. Unlike other figs, it’s not reliant on fig wasps or other insects for pollination.

In warmer climates, this fig can produce up to two harvests per year. The first harvest is referred to as the berba crop. Berba fruit is generally buds which overwintered on the older wood. They then begin to develop as the tree comes out of dormancy. The main crop is almost universally on first-year wood.

If you have a berba crop but the fruit begins to turn black, it’s important to remove that fruit quickly. Blackened fruit has already died off and will not become viable.

You can tell the age of growth by its color. Younger growth will be greenish in color and smooth to the touch. Older wood’s bark will turn a grey hue.

Once your fruit has formed, it’s important to invest in bird netting. This keeps birds away from your ripening fruit. It may also help defend your fruit from squirrels or other wildlife.

Pruning

Pruning style is very reliant on your climate and whether you grow your plant as a shrub or tree. It seems a bit complex, but once you’ve built experience it’s quite easy to maintain figs.

In areas where the winter can hit 10° or colder, the shrub format’s more reliable. Keeping it small makes it easier to overwinter. This format does not usually have a berba crop, as it produces only on new growth.

For shrub-style plants, move them indoors once the leaves start to fall. This is a sign of the tree entering dormancy. In the late winter, you can prune it to maintain size, but try to avoid pruning more than a third of the tree at any given time. Those with in-ground plantings should mulch heavily around the plant to keep the roots warm. A plant blanket or frost bag should be used to keep the temperature consistent around the shrub.

Those in warmer climates can maintain their trees as shrubs, or can allow normal tree growth. This hardy Chicago fig tends towards a multi-trunked habit. For people looking for high yields, go for many trunks! This takes more space, but produces more fruiting wood and a bigger harvest.

People with compact spaces may want to maintain their tree as a single-trunked tree. The canopy will still be large, but the base is much more narrow.

In January or February, you’ll need to examine your plant closely. You’ll need to trim back branches to allow for good airflow into the center of your tree. Concentrate on taking out older, grey-colored wood or dead/diseased wood. Avoid removing more than a third of the growth.

Figs can be topped to keep them shorter and more compact. Look at the central branches of your tree. Select those which have offshoots aimed towards the outside of the tree’s canopy. Cut just above the offshoot branch to reduce the height and direct its growth towards the sides. This allows for extra light to hit the central trunks, which spurs new growth.

Try to complete all your pruning and shaping while the tree is still dormant in the late winter. Once the weather warms and new growth becomes evident, you’ll want to let it develop.

As the tree begins to leaf out in the spring, look at your berba fruit if any has overwintered. Remove any which has turned black, as this won’t ripen. Trimming that off the tree cleans up the branches and encourages the tree to prepare for new fruit. The earlier in the season you can remove dead berba fruit, the quicker the tree will start fruiting anew.

Wear good work gloves while doing pruning or harvesting, as the tree’s sap may irritate the skin.

Harvesting

Ripe fig on tree
You may need to clip through the short stem to harvest the Chicago hardy fig. Source: Chiot’s Run

When ripe, figs are quite delicate. But you do have to wait until they’re ripe before harvesting! They do not continue to ripen once picked.

Your Chicago hardy fig fruit will be a deep purplish-brown in color. They should be slightly soft to the touch, but not squishy. Squishy fruit is likely overripe.

A pair of sterile pruning shears is useful to clip through the fig stems. While some figs may come off easily, you don’t want to yank as it may damage your fruit. Any which resist harvesting when ripe should have the stem cut to keep them intact.

Preserving

Fresh figs don’t last long once they’re picked. You can reliably keep them in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, but they’ll spoil quickly.

To extend the longevity of your fruit before use, you can freeze figs whole and then let them thaw before use. Dried figs, either dehydrated or freeze-dried, are also quite popular. Figs may also be canned using a tested, food-safe recipe such as this one for fig preserves.

Overwintering Outdoor Figs

Harvested fig
Figs do not store for long once ripe. Eat or preserve within 3 days. Source: Chiot’s Run

If you are right at the edge of the hardy Chicago fig’s range, you may still be able to overwinter it outdoors. But it’s a bit more challenging.

Begin by applying a thick base of mulch around the tree. Make sure that the mulch is at least 4″ thick and extends out as wide as the tree’s canopy. You can use wood chips, leaves, or straw/hay as the base layer. This helps keep the roots warm and less likely to freeze.

Wrap the branches with something warm. Good choices include carpet padding, old bedding, or wool plant blankets. Use twine to secure these. Wrap the trunk in something warm as well.

Finally, cover the entire tree with an external layer. This can be a plant bag, a tarp tied at the trunk, burlap fabric tied at the trunk, or even a plastic bag. This provides another layer of protection for your tree.

In late winter, you’ll want to remove your protection so that you can prune before it exits dormancy. But protecting your tree like this should help it survive chilly conditions!

Troubleshooting

Generally speaking, the Bensonhurst purple fig is a variety that’s resilient. It has great pest and disease resistance, and very seldom exhibits signs of problems.

But pests are determined little critters. So are fungal diseases. So let’s go over the most likely culprits should you run across problems with your hardy fig tree!

Growing Problems

An established hardy Chicago fig tree is very drought-resistant. But despite that, it does still need water. If you see the leaves yellowing during its growing season, it’s thirsty. Give it a drink!

But at the same time, don’t overwater. If your fruit tastes watery or bland, that’s a sure sign that you gave it too much moisture. Give the tree enough to survive, but don’t go overboard.

In zone 5 and 6, your tree is at risk of damage from cold. Twig dieback is not uncommon. The established grey wood will survive, but younger wood may not. Be sure to winterize plants in these areas. Alternately, bring them indoors to overwinter.

Pests

Your biggest and most annoying pest when growing the Chicago hardy fig is birds. They love your fruit as much as you do, and a flock can decimate your harvest.

Use bird netting to keep birds away. Hanging reflective tape is also effective. As a side bonus, you may deter squirrels or other wildlife who might like your fruit!

While they’re not common, there is a short list of other pests that may come to call. Follow the links to more in-depth information about the following potential pests.

Diseases

As far as diseases go, your hardy fig will be resilient and able to survive most of them. But diseases can do seasonal damage, and if not treated they may linger into the next year.

Generally, most damage will be to the leaves of your fig. Watch for septoria or alternaria leaf spots. Also keep a watchful eye out for anthracnose, both as a spot or a blight. Rusts are another fungal disease that might appear.

For most of these, a copper-based fungicide will resolve the issue.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are there wasps inside my figs?

A: A Bensonhurst purple fig doesn’t require the services of a fig wasp to pollinate it. While some species do have a mutualistic relationship with the fig wasp, Chicago hardy figs do not. They’re self-fruitful. So have no fear, there’s no wasps in your fruit!

Q: Can I espalier my fig tree?

A: Yes! It’s best to espalier to a T-shape so that new growth can develop from the older growth.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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