It had been growing in Olympia for a century. It was found a decade ago by an Elma biologist and discovered to be a new variety five years ago. Now the Olympian fig — ficus carica ‘Olympian’ — is finally available in South Sound nurseries, and proving one of the best ways to grow this ancient, hot-climate fruit in the cool Northwest.
“Western Washington is one of the coolest places in the lower 48,” says Michael Dolan of Burnt Ridge Nursery, about 50 miles south of Olympia in Onalaska, Wash. “For a heat-loving plant like the fig, that’s a real challenge.”
But it’s one the Olympian succeeds brilliantly at. Named by retired Elma environmental biologist and fig fanatic Denny McGaughy, when he discovered that one of the 100 figs he was raising was a previously unidentified variety, the Olympian fig is just this season hitting commercial nurseries. Dolan, who got a cutting from McGaughy several years ago, has been testing it ever since, and began to sell it this year at the Olympia Farmers Market. It’s one of around 15 varieties that he recommends for our cool, wet South Sound climate.
“Figs are one of the easiest trees to grow,” says Dolan, who’s been growing them for 30 years.
Yet the fig — recently discovered to be the world’s first domesticated crop, around 11,400 years ago — originated in the Jordan Valley, which, as Dolan points out, has a climate like Palm Springs. So what’s the Olympian’s secret to thriving in Western Washington’s gray, rainy weather?
To begin with, extreme hardiness.
“At 15 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll get tip dieback,” says Dolan. “At 10 degrees, branch dieback. At zero degrees, the tree will die right to the ground, then start regrowing from the roots.”
Up on the sunny slope of Burnt Ridge, with clear views to Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, Dolan’s figs get much colder than Olympia or Tacoma trees. In 1989 there was a three-day stretch of zero degrees, when he lost much of his other fruit stock. But by summer, his figs had leafed out and grown again to 6 feet. One shrubby Desert King now produces hundreds of fruit each year for Dolan to sell at the market.
They also don’t need much care. Evolved in semidesert, after the first few years figs develop a root system that can reach up to 20 feet across and down to find water. Dolan never waters, feeds or even weeds his mature trees. They’re also self-pollinating, and don’t get many problems with insects or disease.
But the final trick for the Olympian is something peculiar to just a few varieties of fig: overwintering its fruit.
“It’s called the breba crop,” says Dolan, referring to the Latin-origin word meaning “twice-bearing” and lifting some 1- gallon Olympians up to illustrate. “About now you’ll see these tiny figs growing on even young trees. They’ll lose their leaves but the fruit stays. Not even the frost bothers them.”
The tree then leafs out around May, and the fruit — already given a head start —swells and ripens by July, tangerine-sized and with violet skin and red flesh.
Most of the other cool-climate figs do the same thing, with just a few, like the sweet, green-fleshed Beall, producing a second crop in October, if the summer has been warm.
Dolan holds out a bowl of freshly picked Bealls, their purple-brown skin tinged with green. He’s been selling them at the market for months now.
“Anywhere you can grow tomatoes or corn, you can grow figs,” he says.
Other good figs to grow in the South Sound include the honey-sweet, lemon-green Laterulla or Italian honey fig; Violette de Bordeaux, nearly black when ripe and less hardy; Violetta, Cordi, Atriano, Brown Turkey (another that will grow two crops); the slow-growing, yellow-green Brunswick; and the tried-and-true Desert King, with big, purple-brown fruit.
Dolan even has a new variety called the Chicago Hardy, bred to withstand that city’s extreme cold and that grows up from the ground and fruits in just one season before dying back again.
Yet figs also respond well to extreme heat and drought, with this year’s warm summer being a “spectacular season,” according to Tacoma grower Scott Gruber. It’s all good news for future climate fluctuations.
“Flexible trees like figs will benefit,” Dolan says.
But the best reason to grow figs is, of course, the taste: Bite into the lush, soft sweetness of a fig and you’ll instantly see why Denny McGaughy calls them “God’s candy.”
“This is the sweetest fruit you can grow around here,” Dolan says.