March 18

Black Mission fig, the most abundant black fig in California

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The Black Mission fig

Let’s talk about the mission fig, also called black mission fig and many other synonyms. It’s one of five commercial varieties grown in California besides Mission, Kadota, Adriatic, Calimyrna, and Brown Turkey.

A popular variety of the edible fig

Interestingly, it was first introduced to the United States in 1768 when Franciscan missionaries planted it in San Diego. It was also planted in the subsequent missions that the Franciscans established up the California coast. Gustav Eisen writes, “The early padres and missionaries in the Pacific coast States cultivated no other variety of fig”.

Later it became the main commercial variety planted throughout California. Finally the Mission fig was later surpassed by the Sari Lop fig (also known as Calimyrna) as the most popular commercial fig variety grown in California.

2 crops per year, breba and main crop

The Black Mission fig is a high quality fig variety. Also note that it produces both a breba and main crop, and is considered an everbearing variety when planted in the right climate. The breba crop is large. The main crop is medium-sized. It is a dark skinned fig with a strawberry colored interior. Surprisingly skin of the fruit often cracks when it is ripe. Moreover, the tree is long lived and grows to be quite large but it is sensitive to frost.

Yet black mission fig trees are almost always infected with Fig mosaic virus, which can affect the color and shape of leaves, but usually does not affect fruit production. However, it is still considered one of the highest quality figs that can be grown in USDA zones 9 and up in the United States.

Black mission fig synonyms

As most figs, it’s known by many different names:

Franciscana (syns. Mission, Black Mission, California Black, Negra, Brebal, Douro Vebra, Biberaeo,
Reculver, Gouraud Noir, Gourreau du Languedoc, probably Noire d’Espagne,
Gourreau Noir).

From Ira Condit Monograph

Black mission fig history

The Franciscana (Mission) fig was introduced at San Diego about 1768 from mission
stations in Baja California, and until the middle of the past century was practically the
only variety grown in the early settlements. In 1882, West reported that it was too well
known to need description, and added that it was the only black fig of his acquaintance
that was of any value for drying. Eisen, in 1885, stated that this variety was not good
for drying, but in later publications described it as a fig which dried well. In his bulletin
of 1901 we read: “The general belief that the Mission is a distinct California fig is
438 Hilgardia
[Vol. 23, No. 11
erroneous. We can no more lay exclusive claim to this fig than can Mexico and Chile. It
was undoubtedly brought from Spain or Portugal at a very early date after the
conquest.”


About 1909, Eisen identified the “Mission” as Franciscana, of Spain, but the exact
reference to his publication has not been located. In 1925, Condit wrote, after personal
observations in Spain: “The Franciscana is a black fig commonly grown at Estepona,
over sixty miles below Málaga, on the coast. Dried figs of this variety seen at Motril
appeared to be identical to the California Mission.” It seems to be the same variety that
Escribano y Perez described in 1884 as Higuera Negra, of Murcia Province, where it was
much esteemed both for fresh fruit and for drying. The following two introductions
from Málaga into California have proved to be identical with the Franciscana: P.I. No.
58,664 as Negra, and P.I. No. 62,777 as Brebal.


Three varieties imported from England with the Chiswick collection, P.I. No. 18,875
as Biberaeo, No. 18,896 as Gouraud Noir, and No. 18,868 as Reculver, also produce fruit
like that of the Franciscana. The first two are described by Eisen as distinct varieties, but
the characters listed by him coincide almost exactly with those of the Franciscana.
According to E. A. Bunyard (1925), the name Reculver comes from Reculver, Kent,
England, where this fig was introduced by the Romans. Dean, in 1904, described
Reculver as a prolific fig tree with small, purple fruits.


Another introduction of the Chiswick collection, P.I. No. 18,867, labeled Douro
Vebra, bore fruit very similar to the Franciscana. According to Barron (1891), Douro
Vebra is the same as Biberaeo. In the original notebook of John Rock, Niles, dated
1895, there are outline drawings and notes of California Black, Biberaeo, and Reculver.
Under the short description of Reculver there appears this line in the handwriting of
Gustav Eisen: “Leaves mottled, as on Mission.” This unpublished note, we might point
out here, is probably the first observation made on the occurrence of a leaf mosaic on
the fig in California.


Although it appears strange that Eisen should not have considered the above three
kinds to be the same as Franciscana, they are being treated here as identical with that
variety.


The Franciscana fig has long been grown in the eastern and southern United States.
Trees have been observed on the original Arlington estate of the Custis family near
Cape Charles, Virginia, and on a neighboring farm; also at the Virginia Truck
Experiment Station, Norfolk, and at the Hampton Institute. The probable reasons for
the lack in popularity of the variety in these districts are the susceptibility of trees to
frost damage, and their light productivity. W. S. Anderson reported in 1924 that in
south Mississippi, “the Black Mission was injured more than any other variety by the
cold, and produced very few fruits.” On the other hand, the fruit was of the highest
quality, “standing up better when left on the tree during the rainy season than any
other variety in the test.” Woodard (1940) showed that in Georgia, the Mission was
much inferior to Celeste in fruit production. Wythes (1902) reported Gouraud Noir, or
Dr. Hogg’s black fig, to be a fine flavored fruit, and excellent for pot culture in England.
Franciscana trees are widely distributed in California, both as individual trees
February, 1955] Condit: Fig Varieties
439
and in commercial plantings. Immense specimens are found, especially in the foothills
of the interior valleys (plate 5). The one figured by Condit in 1919 near Corning, with a
trunk circumference of 13-1/2 feet, has disappeared; but there are others just as large,
or larger. Another and older tree, still growing on the William Curtner place near
Mission San Jose, is reported to have been planted about 1800. Mills (1918) tells of other
large specimens. During seasons with unusually low temperatures, trees of this variety
are more subject to injury than are trees of other commercial kinds, as pointed out by
Shinn (1892) and Hodgson (1934). On account of the productive capacity of the trees,
resistance of the fruit to spoilage, and excellent quality both fresh and dried, the
Franciscana has long enjoyed an excellent reputation. The main objection to it
commercially is the black skin color, which practically prohibits use of the dried fruit in
fig paste.

Black mission fig tree and fruit description


Foremost, the tree is a vigorous grower, with branches rather slender (plate 4), the larger often
drooping to the ground and taking root at the tip; terminal buds are violet-brown.
Leaves large, averaging 7-5/8 inches broad and 8 inches in length; lobes mostly 5, but
sometimes 3, or on vigorous wood with each basal lobe auricled; upper surface
somewhat glossy. Additionnaly, Mosaic spots common and conspicuous on leaves and fruit, but
seldom sufficiently serious to cause alarm on the part of growers.

Breba crop

Breba crop good in most seasons; fruits large, up to 2 inches in diameter and 3 inches
in length, pyriform, with prominent, thick neck, often 1/2 inch long; average weight 56
grams; stalk short and thick; ribs fairly prominent, slightly raised, generally coloring
earlier than body; eye medium, scales purple; surface glossy, with pruinose bloom;
white flecks prominent, scattered; skin checking lengthwise at full maturity; color black;
meat thin, white, or slightly colored; pulp light strawberry, solid; flavor rich, decidedly
characteristic of the fig. Quality excellent. Widely used fresh for local and distant
markets, and frequently dried. (Plate 19, D.)

Main Crop


Second-crop figs variable in size and shape, larger and longer in cool coastal climates
than in the interior, as reported by Condit (1950); average weight near Los Angeles 41
grams, at Riverside 25 grams; size medium; shape pyriform, with thick neck, or often
without neck; body 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 inches in length; stalk short, thick; ribs narrow, only
slightly elevated; eye small to medium, fairly well closed, scales violet; surface dull, with
conspicuous bloom; flecks of white at first prominent, as shown by Condit (1941 a, fig.
9, F), becoming obscured by body color; skin checking at complete maturity; color
black over entire surface; pulp amber to light strawberry; flavor distinctive, rich.
Quality excellent, both fresh and dried.

Caprification


Caprified figs somewhat larger; average weight 56 grams; pulp dark strawberry;
seeds large, fertile. On the other end, these figs are not regarded favorably, however, by dried-fig
packers because of greater loss by spoilage. (Plates 10; 11; 19, C.)


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