The Home Orchardist: The Black Jack Fig

"You planted a Black Jack Fig in your garden?" asked the nursery specialist, peering at me over his Ben Franklin glasses. "Now that's a great tree for the Valley."

If it was so great for our area, why was I having problems with it?

The San Fernando Valley is famous for fruit. In the early twentieth century, it was home to more fruit trees than people. Its flat, fertile acres were planted in commercial orchards of orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, apricot and fig, which were packed and shipped to markets throughout the country.

After World War II, a boom in home building swept the Valley, plowing under the orchards for suburban streets and single-family houses. Now that I live in one of those homes and want to embrace the Valley's rich history of successful fruit orchards, I planted several fruit-bearing trees in my garden. In less than a century, growing fruit trees had shifted from a big business venture to a past time for the home orchardist. But my new hobby turned into heartache as I witnessed the ravaging of my newly planted baby fig tree, by a predator I'd never seen.

Hence my visit to the specialists at Armstrong Garden Center in Sherman Oaks. I was trying to discern what was decimating my fig tree's leaves. Every morning the joy of a new, bright green Black Jack leaf was replaced by sheer frustration when it was chewed to nothing but veins within 24 hours.

"It doesn't sound like a fungus is eating it but I'd need to see a leaf to be sure," said Gary Olson, the specialist helping me. "Have you seen any bugs around it?"

In the store's pest control aisle I scanned the bottles of sprays and noticed a label with a picture of a flat-bodied, brown-black bug with long antennae. Eureka!

"That's the one!" I shrieked. "I've seen it on the ground around the tree!"

"A European Earwig," he said. "But they're helpful bugs; they even eat those nasty aphids. No." He shook his head. "Something else must be attacking your tree."

But what?

Back at the house I knelt before my Black Jack gently turning over each leaf to look at its top and underside. I didn't see any bugs but found more leaves near the base of the trunk that had been gnawed down to the veins. Carefully I pinched them off and slipped one into a Ziploc bag to show Gary. I developed several hypotheses. Perhaps ground bugs left the soil and crawled up the tree unseen to eat the leaves? Perhaps young fig leaves are a bug delicacy? Perhaps I was an idiot trying to grow fruit trees in the backyard?

Tips for Home Garden Pest Control

- Explore the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources website. Their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) pages are especially helpful with photos and descriptions of the Darkling Beetle and other pests that afflict fruit trees.

- Contact your local nursery and Certified Nursery Professional. There's nothing better than a specialist's expert opinion, especially if you have a leaf sample (carried in a secure plastic Ziploc bag) to show them.

- Organic, oil-based compounds and sprays are environment-friendlier alternatives to ridding your home orchard of fruit tree pests. Try Organocide's 3-in-1 Garden Spray mixed with water.

Then panic swept over me. The Black Jack fig was just one of several fruit trees I'd planted the previous December. If my other trees were similarly afflicted, I would be out: (1) The money spent buying them and renting the U-Haul to transport them from the nursery; (2) the elbow grease used digging holes and watering them regularly; (3) the hours and hours of time I'd poured over the Sunset Western Garden Book picking out the ideal species I wanted in the garden. I'd also lose a piece of my heart because when you put effort into anything and it fails, it hurts.

Fearing for the health of my other fruit trees, I rushed around the garden examining each one from bark to blossom. All of them looked healthy, with the Blenheim Apricot looking the most lush. In January and February it had been covered in bright white blossoms with pink centers, which in March had given way to miniature green orbs that already had the distinct apricot shape with the soft cleavage line. Remarkably, while I'd been fretting every day about the fig, the apricot had thrived in its sunny garden spot, all on its own. I should have only planted apricots!

The apricot tree was my perfect child. The fig was my problem spawn.

I took to the internet. Several amateur gardening websites mentioned a leaf condition similar to mine, all with a mystery insect culprit. I found the helpful University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources department website. Its Integrated Pest Management (IPM) pages listed countless bugs, including the Darkling Beetle, whose behavior fit the description of my Black Jack pest to a T. Darkling Beetles chew fig leaves and are most active at night. During the day they hide under clods of soil and debris. The best way to handle them is to remove the weeds and debris from the base of the trunk.

Suddenly I didn't feel alone. I had a culprit and a method of attack! I embraced a three-prong approach. I sprayed an organic, oil-based compound on the tree's bark and leaves. Next I weeded around the tree trunk. Finally I laid a large sheet of white plastic around the tree's base, anchoring each corner with a brick. Then, I waited.

Every day I examined the fig, continuing to pinch off the chewed leaves. But with each passing day the number of chewed leaves grew smaller and the number of healthy leaves increased. After one week, not a leaf had been nibbled on. I started to hope for success. I started to dream of figs in the fall. I started to dig holes to plant more fig trees.

My apricot tree is still beautiful. But sometimes the problem child gives us the greatest satisfaction.

[Photo of black jack fig tree by Flickr user psd; image of Blenham apricots by Flickr user chez pim.]

About the Author

Alicia Bien is a comedy writer and home orchardist who lives in Los Angeles.
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