Heritage Figs

August 2011

John Dean is a collector and grower of heritage fig trees

Collectors come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and collectors of fruit trees and vines are no exception. Their common trait is that they enjoy the challenge of discovering new varieties and finding out their characteristics. Some, like John Dean, are seeking to preserve heritage varieties for posterity as well as check out the new ones. Others, like Bruce Burrows, are focused on finding any varieties that are ideal for their particular region. In the process of extending their collections, collectors acquire much knowledge around how to propagate, grow and manage different varieties, and they are happy to pass on that knowledge as well as the genetic material to other people. In doing what they do, collectors provide a valuable service to commercial growers and home gardeners alike, as well as to future generations.

Before he retired, John Dean farmed in northern Hawkes Bay. He planted a fig tree in the farm garden and was shown by an elderly man how to care for it properly. Over the years he developed an interest in and taste for figs so that when he moved to the Bay of Plenty onto a lifestyle block, he decided to acquire a few plants because he felt that fig varieties had not been researched properly. “Figs have always been grown in New Zealand and I have found plants that were brought over by the armed Constabulary that fought in the Te Kooti wars. Unfortunately the figs were not pruned properly or cared for and just grew wild, and they were not named,” says John. “Eric Cairns, the Co-ordinator for Figs for the NZ Tree Crops Association, has produced a naming guide to varieties and this has been helpful.” John started his collection when an elderly fig enthusiast in the district died. He was able to take cuttings and so preserve her collection. Similarly when another collector moved locations, he was able to take samples. Eric Cairns has also given John cuttings from imported trees. In a relatively short time John has accumulated over 70 varieties of figs on his 2ha property. They grow particularly well in the Bay, he says. “They need summer heat to ripen properly. They also like moist ground during the fruit development stage — feet in water and head in fire. The surface roots should not be disturbed so mulching of some form is highly recommended,” says John. “Further south it may be advantageous to put a layer of reflective foil down on the ground to build up the heat, or stones and rocks with grass clippings over the top, to help fruit ripen. In the Bay of Plenty as long as you suppress the weeds and get a mulch down they grow well.” Vigorous growth in the Bay means severe pruning is necessary, and John says many people are unsure how to shape their trees. He feels more people would grow figs if they knew which varieties suited their locations. “There is a great variation in the size that fig trees grow to, I have seen a 50-year-old tree that is only about 3 m high yet there is one tree in Gisborne that was 120 years old and was 8 m x 8 m x 20 m long so you get all sorts and sizes depending on the variety,” he says. “For the home garden there are some dwarf varieties that will be very suitable and it may be possible to graft good local varieties onto dwarfing rootstock.” “At the moment I’ve got two beauties that are great eating, one called Morrison and another called Celeste, and I think they are highly desirable fruit. If we can focus on the very best ones we will encourage more New Zealanders to grow good quality figs.” Figs are easy to grow from cuttings, according to John, and they have few diseases. Young plants can have leaf spots that can cause problems but they can be controlled by removing the spotty leaves and burning them. Flies can be a problem if the fruit has an open “eye”, so fruit with a closed eye is essential for exports. John sees great potential for figs locally and also for exporting to the US market. “Restaurants find them very easy to prepare, they can add all sorts of things to make delicious deserts, and the American market is quite strong because we are off-season for them and I imagine there would be good opportunities in Europe as well,” he says. “However, we have yet to learn how to freight figs and get a high percentage of them to market in good condition. Research is needed but there aren’t quite enough growers supporting it yet. I hope that a semi-drying, semi-sterilising system will work. In California fresh figs look semi-dried because in their long dry summers they dry naturally on the trees. We shouldn’t have any trouble convincing Americans to eat a fig that has been lightly dried to preserve it.” Why does John continue to collect and preserve fig varieties even though he is over 70? It is partly about preserving old varieties and partly about finding ones that are best suited to New Zealand conditions. “I have some varieties that are not suited to the Bay of Plenty but are likely to be suitable for, say, Northland or Wellington. It also may be that in the future some varieties will be found to have special health benefits or other advantages, so I am happy to keep them going,” says John. His legacy to New Zealand fig lovers is secure. The original tree that he planted in the Hawkes Bay all those years ago was wrongly named, so it has been given a new name – the John Dean variety.

Bruce grows a variety of fruit on 0.7ha – avocados, easy peel mandarins and grapes especially. About 15 years ago he became interested in making fruit wines and as part of that planted some table grape cuttings from Te Aroha and Gisborne. Since that time he has extended his collection of grape varieties and now has around 40 growing. Rather than preserving varieties Bruce is focused on finding grapes that grow well in the Bay of Plenty. They need to be vigorous, disease resistant and of course have the flavour and qualities that make good eating or good wine. Through his experimenting he has found a number of ideal varieties including a Merlot and Pintara – a grape with red juice that he believes is likely to be high in antioxidants. Most of the grapes have been harvested, but there may be a few left. He also makes wine, sherry and port.