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Just a Shadow of its Former Glory

This glorious fig tree has been a part of our backyard oasis for many years and its dense umbrella-like canopy reminds me of those similar looking trees from my favorite book growing up, Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman.  This tree also holds a very special place in my wife’s heart as growing up, she had fond memories of picking figs—which she loves—at her grandmother’s house.  So, in 2000 after we put our pool in, planting a fig tree was a natural addition for both of us.

The landscape company that helped us design our backyard put in a few what they called “pool-friendly” trees after the pool was finished but it was really the next year that we began to add some of our own tastes.

I don’t recall what year we planted this fig tree but in this picture from 2003, it has already started to make its mark on our yard, in a special place visible from almost anywhere in the yard.

Over the years, it continued to grow majestically and the photo at the top taken in 2012, just nine years after the one above, shows its prolific growth over the period.  It began to put out figs even in its youth and as it continued to grow, put out more and more figs.  While the harvest varied year to year, it afforded my wife the opportunity to make fig preserves and other delicious treats.  I seem to recall she put up over 100 jars one year.

Typically, they would begin to ripen in late July or August, some of the hottest months in Memphis and so picking figs was always a very early morning activity.

During this time, I would leave my 8-foot ladder outside for weeks so we could reach as many of the ripe figs before squirrels or birds had their fill.  Embarrassingly, one day our oldest son called looking for my wife and knowing she was already out on the ladder picking figs, I explained she was out back “figging.”  He paused and said, “You need to go look up what that word means.”  I was most mortified when I read the definition and realized what I had actually been saying vowing to myself never to say that again.

Year after year for the first twelve years or so, we enjoyed watching the tree grow taller and more majestic and my wife enjoyed the ever-expanding crop of figs.

The first sign of tree trouble reared its ugly head in 2014 when near the end of June, we saw that the outer-most branches had still not leafed out.

The next year was similar and the year after as well.

By 2018, we became quite distressed as the bare branches visibly seemed to outnumber those with leaves.  I began to wonder what the cause and my only consolation, although not much of one, was when I noticed another fig tree in our neighborhood that looked similarly distressed.  At least whatever the cause was not unique to our tree.

By the summer of 2019, it looked just as bad.

But interestingly during the pandemic of 2020, it appeared to have partially revived itself and my wife and I held out hope that it was on the amends.

But in 2021, it seemed the patient made a major regression.

This photo, taken after I had trimmed away a number of very dry and dead branches, looks like just a skeleton of its former self.

I began to Google fig tree diseases, but none described what we were seeing.  Then I wondered how cold hardy a fig tree was.  I looked that up and found that while it could tolerate freezing temperatures, it really needed a mild winter like the ones we typically have in Memphis to survive.  Extended periods of sub-freezing temperature could kill a fig tree.

Since I always organize my digital photos by year, it was easy for me to look back to get a feel for how hard the winters might have been as whenever we get a good snow—a rarity in Memphis—I typically get a shot of the snow surrounding our pool since it is not often, we see that.

Looking through my photos, I discovered that for the two summers the tree looked the worst, 2018…

…and 2021…

…our pool had frozen over even with the pump running.  The winter of 2021 was particularly cold as we had a full week of subfreezing temperatures, several nights of single digit lows, and almost eight inches of snow as the photo above attests.

And when I looked back at my winter photos from 2014, the first year the tree showed signs of distress, I had taken snow shots of the pool in February and then again in March when we had late freezing rain and snow after the trees had begun to bud out.

So, it seemed I had found the smoking gun or in this case, the freezing gun.  Although this is more deductive reasoning than scientific proof as to the cause of our tree’s decline, it makes sense that the smaller branches towards the top of the tree would be the most susceptible to the freeze much like our own extremities, fingers, and toes, are most vulnerable to frostbite.  But what to do next is completely unknown.

The trimming of dead branches I have done so far only scratches the surface of realistically what else needs to be trimmed.  I just cannot bear the thought of pruning it back to the point it looks like Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree.  I plan to give it one more year without doing any further pruning with the hope that if we have a mild winter this coming year, the tree may have a chance to resuscitate itself like it seems to have done in 2020.

Given its age, the tree no doubt has an extensive root system that can readily spur new growth.  But even so, I still must honestly admit to myself that the tree may never look again as majestic as it did during its glory period.  And since it has brought such wonderful years of pleasure to my wife, I cannot bring myself to the idea that what little remains of it may have to be taken down sometime in the future.

Only time will tell.

4 thoughts on “Just a Shadow of its Former Glory Leave a comment

  1. You certainly have done your detective work on this one. I wonder if there is anything you can do should the temperatures get below freezing. Perhaps a covering over the tree – much like how small plants are covered when there is a frost warning? I don’t know if it would work. But, if it did, and the tree began to return to its former glory – you and your wife could have a dog party – A Big Dog Party! Red dogs, green dogs, big dogs, little dogs, …. Good luck with your tree!

  2. Poor fig tree! We are experiencing the same thing with our birch trees. There’s a birch borer that’s decimating them all over the city, and the extreme heat doesn’t help. We’ve had them trimmed several times and even had them injected with something to rescue them, but…I fear this year may be their last.

    • It is so sad to see majestic trees succumb to blight or bugs. They take so long to grow, it is a sad way to end. I learned a lot about such terrible stories in the book,Urban Forest.

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