O’Rourke fig cultivar and Improved Celeste fig cultivar have been confused in the nursery trade and among home orchardists. This post will attempt to clear up much of the confusion about these two excellent fig varieties.
O’Rourke and Improved Celeste are very different, distinct cultivars. Both were created in the LSU fig breeding program. Both are improved celeste hybrids; however, one, O’Rourke, was officially released by LSU, whereas the other cultivar, already known and sold in commercial nurseries as Improved Celeste, was not officially released. I don’t know that LSU has even acknowledged its existence, except in passing. Nor do I know how Improved Celeste got its name or who first named it.
According to LSU, this is the O’Rourke fruit, below, which “tapers slightly toward the stem end with a long neck,” according to Dr. O’Rourke, et al:
The fruit pictured immediately below is Improved Celeste:
Improved Celeste fruit is more squat and bell-shaped, and in color lavender or navy, sometimes light red or brown. O’Rourke Fruit is more slender in appearance and typically brown with some maroon.
The leaves of both cultivars are different. O’Rourke leaves are commonly 5 lobed, whereas Improved Celeste leaves are commonly 3 lobed. That said, vigorously growing Improved Celeste can develop many 5 lobed leaves, though the shape is different than the 5 lobed leaves of O’Rourke.
Improved Celeste fruit:
Given the significant differences, why are these cultivars ever confused and conflated? Seems to be a ready explanation: Multiple very good commercial plant nurseries have mixed up these two cultivars, claimed them to be one and the same, and continue to unwittingly perpetuate the mistake. Almost Eden nursery in Louisiana and Petals from the Past nursery in Alabama are two of the best nurseries to purchase fig trees from. I have many great fig trees purchased from both nurseries. Mistakes happen. Here are the mistakes they have made and/or are making with these two cultivars:
Almost Eden uses the following photos that look more like Improved Celeste fruit than O’Rourke fruit on its O’Rourke page to sell what it claims to be O’Rourke trees:
The fruit above is “turbinate,” and that is how Almost Eden describes it. However Improved Celeste fruit is turbinate, not O’Rourke officially, which is said to have fruit that “tapers slightly toward the stem end with a long neck,”according to Dr. O’Rourke, et al. And while the fruit above looks more like Improved Celeste than O’Rourke, it looks even more like regular Celeste, which is likely what it is: AscPete states at Ourfigs forum:
“Almost Eden’s alleged “improved Celeste” is a regular Celeste, but no idea about their O’Rourke, they are always sold out. Petals ft Past’s Tiger is O’Rourke and their O’Rourke is the IC Hybrid. Edible Landscaping’s O’Rourke is an IC Hybrid, but an inferior cultivar with poor quality figs.”
Another point of confusion: directions on Almost Eden’s O’Rourke web page intended to assure viewers that AE has the true O’Rourke take viewers to a web page showing only the fruit and trees of Improved Celeste. This O’Rourke pagerefers viewers to this Improved Celeste pic page.
One longtime fig grower has noted that Almost Eden has shipped O’Rourke and Improved Celeste trees to him more-or-less interchangeably. This occurred either due to mislabeling or because AE remains confused about the difference.
Below is the Improved Celeste fruit that Almost Eden displays on its Improved Celeste page. After accounting for some lighting differences, it looks nearly identical to the supposedly O’Rourke fruit displayed on the O’Rourke page. From AE’s Improved Celeste Page:
For its part, Petals from the Past nursery has used LSU’s photo of O’Rourke fruit to sell what it believes to be O’Rourke trees but which were actually Improved Celeste trees that it sent to me. Simultaneously, the nursery uses a photo of presumably its own Improved Celeste trees, which are the actual tree clones it sold to me, Improved Celeste, not O’Rourke:
Note, the tree on the left immediately above does not produce the fruit on the right immediately above, despite Petals from the Past’s juxtaposition of the two photos. The O’Rourke photo on the right is LSU’s photo, surely taken in Louisiana. The Improved Celeste photo on the left is presumably from the orchards of Petals from the Past in Alabama.
Making the confusion/conflation complete, Petals from the Past states: “O’Rourke often referred to as Improved ‘Celeste is a tan fig with good flavor.”
I have purchased a total of six so-called O’Rourke trees from Petals from the Past and they are all instead Improved Celeste trees producing nothing but of course Improved Celeste fruit. (I made the bulk purchase knowingly a couple years ago when I realized what PP was selling. I prefer Improved Celeste to O’Rourke though both are great cultivars. Improved Celeste is a very robust, plump, especially sweet and fast-ripening fig. It was great to be able to gift this wonderful cultivar to family and friends. More recently, purchasers have noted that they have received O’Rourke trees (not Improved Celeste) when ordering O’Rourke trees, so possibly the confusion there has been cleared up.)
I’ve purchased many trees from Almost Eden but not their so-called O’Rourke, so I don’t know what actual cultivar they typically ship under that name. It seems that they have both cultivars but confuse them in their online display and sometimes in shipping.
More recently, the good plant nursery Edible Landscaping is adding to the confusion. Its O’Rourke page displays the picture of Improved Celeste fruit and leaves:
Again, these are all good nurseries for figs, in my opinion, though their confusion on O’Rourke and Improved Celeste is considerable. If you want great fig trees at reasonable prices, you can scarcely do better than to buy from Almost Eden and Petals from the Past, also Edible Landscaping – just watch out for confusion with the Improved Celeste and O’Rourke cultivars.
How did these nurseries get so confused? I have no reason to doubt cajunfig’s explanation:
“When LSU officially released their O’Rourke cultivar in 2007 several retail nurseries just changed the name of their Improved Celeste stock trees and/or their LSU Improved Celeste stock trees to the O’Rourke name.”
Why would they do this? I would guess because LSU itself had previously referred to the O’Rourke fig as Improved Celeste. O’Rourke is an improved Celeste hybrid but not the Improved Celeste cultivar that was already in commercial circulation when O’Rourke was released in 2007. Dr. O’Rourke, et al:
“‘O’Rourke’ is a common-type fig that is very productive and has performed well in grower trials and home orchards. This selection has previously been unofficially named and propagated as ‘Improved Celeste’; however, ‘Improved Celeste’ is not necessarily the same as ‘O’Rourke’.“
“Not necessarily” is by now completely misleading, since the cultivar that goes only by the name Improved Celeste (or Improved Celeste O’Rourke Not), when not mistakenly called O’Rourke, is not remotely the same cultivar as O’Rourke. A miscommunication of sorts apparently occurred and has self-perpetuated. (Possibly other people elsewhere, especially in Louisiana, are calling Improved Celeste by some other name but if so I’m not aware of it, of any local or other names that “Improved Celeste” may have been given or had originally.)
To my knowledge, cajunfigs first clarified the complete difference between O’Rourke and Improved Celeste several years ago in a series of posts:
Recently, on ourfigs forum, needaclone/Jim concisely summed up the situation with these two very different cultivars:
It is worth elaborating on the fig you brought up in post #5 [Improved Celeste] and referred to again in post #12, namely “the improved celeste that is not O’Rourke.” This is an “improved celeste” that was bred by LSU but not officially released by LSU. As Pete notes, however, it became known as “Improved Celeste.” Then, as Pete notes, when LSU officially released O’Rourke as its “improved celeste,” many people mistakenly changed the labels of their “improved celestes” to read “O’Rourke.” However, it is important to note that some people consider the the unofficially released version to be better than O’Rourke! So much so that they’ve taken to referring to it as “Improved Celeste O’Rourke Not,” or ICON, to help underscore the distinction!
Most recently, Kelby and others on ourfigs have continued to address the issue.
My Improved Celeste trees have produced fruit bountifully. Initially, my O’Rourke trees produced only a handful of fruit, however this season O’Rourke has proven to be a productive and relatively early ripening cultivar, though not as early the very early ripening Improved Celeste.