Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Pomegranates are finally getting their fifteen minutes of fame. I remember eating them in grammar school, savoring the juicy red seeds, while classmates wondered what in the world I was eating, and brave souls ventured a taste. Pomegranates have been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia. Currently, pomegranates are gaining much attention in the West partly because research has shown the juice is high in antioxidants, which have been shown to have a wide variety of health-promoting effects. I would also argue from a pop culture perspective that since Oprah Winfrey featured pomegranate martinis on her show in December, that was definitely a boost to the ancient pomegranate's image.
Pomegranates are truly an ancient fruit, despite their recent surge in popularity. Pomegranates grow on trees native to Iran and the Himalayas in northern India. Cultivation spread westward to the Mediterranean, where much fruit production continues today. These unique fruits are mentioned in Egyptian mythology, the Old Testament in the Bible, and the Babylonian Talmud. Ancient Egyptians considered the pomegranate a symbol of fertility.
Pomegranate trees do not set fruit well in humid conditions, so cultivation has been limited to the hot, dry parts of the world such as the Mediterranean, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the East Indies. Spanish settlers brought pomegranate trees to California in 1769. Today, pomegranates are grown in drier parts of both California and Arizona.
The pomegranate's Latin name, Punica granatum, comes from its French name, pomme grenate, meaning "seedy apple". This is a very appropriate name, considering that the pomegranate fruit is approximately 52% seeds by weight. This is desirable though, because around each seed is sweet pulp and juice held by a membrane. Under a pomegranate's reddish, leathery skin, there is a very tough spongy membrane known as "rag" separating clusters of seeds into compartments within the fruit. The individual membrane-enclosed seeds may be eaten out-of-hand, or they may be pressed for juice extraction. A common use for pomegranate juice is in grenadine, often used in mixed drinks. Pomegranate juice is also becoming a common fixture in the produce section, on its own, or mixed with other fruit juices.
Growing pomegranates is a lesson in patience. Blooms that appear on the tree may be either self- or cross-pollinated. After pollination, it may take anywhere from five to seven months for fruits to mature. With proper cool and dry conditions, pomegranates will remain fresh in storage for up to seven months. This is comparable to the storage life of apples under similar conditions. The "season" for pomegranates is October through January, but given their long storage life, they may be found in stores well past January.
Many cultivars of pomegranates have been bred. They share some common characteristics, such as spiky, angular branches with deciduous or evergreen leathery, oblong-lanceolate leaves, and reddish-brown bark that ages to grey. Flowers are showy, typically with red, white, or variegated petals atop a fleshy calyx and sepals. Some cultivars may reach twenty or thirty feet tall, but many only reach about fifteen feet in height. There are even dwarf varieties suitable for growing in pots, sometimes even as bonsai.
I maintained a dwarf pomegranate in a fourteen inch pot for several years, giving it a winter rest period in my parent's garage. It was suitably cool, but didn't freeze. It just needed occasional watering. Unfortunately, the combination of a very cold winter and my being away in grad school caused the demise of my pomegranate, since no one at home remembered to water it for me, or bring it in when the extreme cold set in. But now that I have my own home, I've placed my order for a new dwarf pomegranate seedling this spring. I can hardly wait!