Growing Australian Figs from Seed

6 month old Ficus Seedlings

When propagating figs, the obvious thing to do is grow them from seed. In the case of the common fruiting fig, Ficus carica, this is probably a bad idea. Common fruiting plants have been selected and breed over the centuries to produce the best fruit and because of this they are normally cloned by taking cuttings, grafts, tissue culture etc.

Seed is the result of sexually reproduction and each seedling will grow different features to it’s parent plant. Plant breeders traditionally grow seed in the search of new forms of leaf, flowers or fruit.

Figs in the wild have a lot of variation. The leaf, plant shape and fruit are amazingly varied. If you are after figs for eating it’s best to collect seed from plants that are producing good fruit, don’t expect every plant you come across to produce nice fruit! Even better is to take cuttings so you know you will get the same fruit as the parent. This isn’t always possibly, it can be difficult to strike cuttings from plants in the wild, leaving seed as the next best option.

When ripe most species of fig will be soft and easily squashed. There are also many ‘dry’ forms of fig, that don’t swell up and are hollow with no flesh, this is common for sand paper figs. If plants are growing in the wild and their fruit is dry, it’s pretty safe to assume they are still being pollinated and producing viable seed. However if a plant is growing in a park or garden and the fruit is dry or hard, it may not be getting pollinated.

There’s a Ficus pleurocarpa, a banana fig from Queensland, growing in Sydney Botanical Gardens. Every year it produces a beautiful crop of bright yellow fruit. The only problem is that the fruit is rock hard and to open them you need a hand saw. When pleurocarpa fruit is ripe it can be brilliant red or purple, the flesh so soft it can fall apart in your hands. The seed inside is fairly large and there’s a lot of it, maybe several hundred in one fruit.

Most figs grow easily from seed. Fresh fruit is best sown as soon as possible. Break the fruit up, scrap the seed off the fig wall and spread it across the top of good potting mix. You can either put a thin layer of potting mix over the seed, maybe 2 mm thick or just leave them uncovered. If you have a lot of flesh with your seed you may have problems with fungus. In this case you could soak the seed in water for a couple of days until the flesh breaks down. I’ve soaked seed for over a week and they have still germinated. Putting a thin layer of mix over fleshy seeds will also help prevent fungus attack. Generally I prefer to leave the seed uncovered because they germinate quicker, but covering them, though causing them to germinate slower may give you a stronger plant in the long run.

 

Ficus macrophylla and Ficus rubiginosa seedlings.
Growing Australian Figs from Seed. Left Ficus macrophylla, Right Ficus rubiginosa. About 2 months old germinated in 6 inch pots. Watered by misters.

 

Fig seedlings in a smaller pot for germination.
Fig seedlings germinated in a smaller pot. Watered by a dripper.

 

 

I’ve read that figs won’t germinate unless they have been soaked, but I’ve found this isn’t true. Soaking is meant to recreate the situation of the fruit being eaten by an animal, digested and then the seed removed from the flesh by the stomach acids.

The main reason I soak seed is if I am unable to sow it straight away. If you collect fig fruit and need to travel with it for a week or so (surely I’m not the only one that does this), you’ll find that storing it in plastic or paper bags will lead to it rotting. I’ve found the best short term storage are screw top test tubes filled with water, I’ve put whole or broken up fruit into this for a week or so. This stops the attack of fungus and lets you easily store a lot of fruit in a small area. Make sure you label them, once the fruit has broken down it can be almost impossible to identify it!

I’ve also read that fig seed doesn’t store for very long. I haven’t tried to grow stored seed so I don’t know if this is the case. My guess is that fig seed could store for long periods if they were prepared correctly, i.e. remove all the flesh etc.

As you may have seen figs will germinate almost anywhere, on top of buildings, in cracks in the foot path, so you could in theory use any type of potting mix! I like to use fine grained sandy mixes, that drain freely yet hold moisture. It’s also possible to use straight propagating sand, though this will cause your seedlings to grow slowing because sand has no nutrients. If you want to buy a mix, I would go with a bonsai or cactus mix, or propagating mixes that have composted wood in them, not peat moss. Peat mixes are light and airy and dry quickly, you will get better results with a fine heavy compact mix.

Figs will germinate best when it is warm, the hotter the better. I have managed to germinate some species during the winter but it’s best to avoid this if you get cold winters. It may take your plants a season or two to be able to tolerate the winter colds, over winter protection may be needed. I’ve managed to propagate tropical species like nodosa and lilliputiana only to have the seedlings die from cold.

As for positioning the pots of seed, I like to place them where they will get as much sun as possible. Full sun is great if you can regularly water them, if not maybe give them half day sun.

I use a small three sided propagating shed with automatic sprinklers. The sprinklers are triggered by an ‘Electronic leaf’ sensor, that turns them off when it is weighed down by water. As the ‘leaf’ dries, the sprinklers turn on again. This way the plants are getting a little bit of water many times during the day maximising the germination rate. At home you can get away with one good soaking every morning.

 

 

Leaf switch
Electronic Leaf irrigation switch, used to keep cuttings and seedlings moist.

 

 

One pot may have over a hundred or more seedlings in it. I tend to use 6 inch pots for sowing the seed. Fill the pot with potting mix leaving about 4cm of the pot empty. This will give the young seedlings a bit of a protective wall from the elements and help the pot collect water. The slightly larger pot keeps the mix at a more constant temperature and moisture level.

The seed should start to germinate after a few weeks, if it hasn’t germinated after a two months, it probably won’t. Once you get the first seed leaves, you can start to fertilise them. I use liquid fertilisers like aquasol, thrive or fish emulsion. Most liquid fertilisers are fine and can be applied every one or two weeks. Seeds only contain enough food to get the plant started, after that plant relies on the potting mix to get it’s food. If you grow your seedling on cotton wool or other artificial mediums it’s really important to feed them.

Coming into Autumn I tend to hold back on feeding to slow the plant down before winter. If your plants have a lot of young growth during winter they can be more prone to cold damage.

Once the plants are a couple of centimetres tall, maybe six months or so after germination, they can be transplanted into individual pots. Best to do this in Spring or Summer. You can nip off the tap root if you like, again planting in a fine grained heavy sandy, woody mix, and I like to mix slow release fertiliser like osomocote, nutricote etc through the potting mix. Figs are heavy feeders and if you want fast growth, it’s ‘almost’ impossible to over feed them.

 

Seedlings 6 months old.
Various types of figs the fruit collected from Mount Isa, Queensland. About 6 months old and ready for repotting. Each pot has a dripper that is turned on for 5 minutes a day. The plants are in full sun.

 

Water the young plants daily giving them a good soaking. Figs are tough and once you’ve grown a few you will learn that you can be very rough with them. After transplanting, you could put them in the shade for the first day, I generally put them straight into full sun. Grouping pots together will help them stay moist during hot weather. As for pot sizes, I try to go the smallest practical pots available. I normal pot seedlings into large tubes or 5cm pots. The smaller the pot, the quicker it drains and the warmer the potting mix gets. Warmth, moisture and good drainage are very important – oh and food! Heavy potting mixers help keep the temperature and moisture content more consistent.

 

Single seedling
A single seedling potted into a 10cm pot. About a year old.

 

The seedlings if growing quickly may need transplanting every six month, moving into a slight bigger pot each time. If the root ball is tight and compressed, pull it apart and cut half of it off each re-pot. This will encourage the plant to re-shoot and create a strong root system. Try to resist the temptation to over pot the plant, remember small pots drain better and stay warmer. Small plants in big pots will generally grow slower!

If it’s warm the plant won’t mind having it’s roots trimmed but if it’s cold, I will re-pot without disturbing the root ball.

During the warmer months, I like to water my plants during the night. Giving them a good soaking that will keep the plant wet all night and should keep the plant wet for most of the following day. I use an automatic watering system to take care of this. During winter I set it so the plants get water in the early morning. The idea being that the plants will dry during the day and not be too wet during the cold nights.

Figs love water, but need good drainage, try to allow them to dry (not to the point of wilting) between waterings. This will also help them to toughen up and be more tolerant of dry or hot spells.

If you are growing your figs to produce fruit, depending on the species you could be in for a long wait. Many sandpaper figs like opposita, coronata and aculeata can fruit as one or two year old seedlings. I have plants that were fruiting before they’d grown side branches! Other figs like rock or strangler figs will start forming fruit at around ten years. If you grow figs from cuttings you are able to get fruit the next season, it’s even possible to take a cutting of a fig branch with fruit on it and have the cutting grow roots and the fruit still ripen. A lot of figs have juvenile foliage and will need to grow out of their juvenile stage before fruiting. Some like the climbing fig Ficus pantoniana, grow distinct juvenile and adult foliage. It seems that they need to climb above the canopy into sunlight before foliage can mature and start setting fruit.