Garden Muse

Pomegranate's Pluses

Story and Photos by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist

 

Even if you have never tasted a pomegranate, you would probably recognize this red globe with the thick, leathery rind and a calyx “crown” beginning to ripen in September and October. 

The pomegranate has been represented in Mediterranean art and literature since ancient times and has been an important part of the Middle Eastern diet for centuries. Break open the skin to reveal the fruit: translucent red “arils,” each about the size of a kernel of corn, are brimming with sweet, tart juice, so luscious in appearance they look like mounds of wet rubies. 

This storied fruit so tempted Persephone in Greek mythology that she was bound to Hades for a season, and its area of origin causes many to speculate that the Garden of Eden’s most tempting food was really the pomegranate. Long associated with cycles of rebirth and regeneration, pomegranates seem today to be earning their fountain-of-youth status.

This “superfood” is packed with vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron and compounds known as phytonutrients that help the body protect against heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. Pomegranates’ potent antioxidants also help retard aging and can neutralize almost twice as many free radicals as red wine and seven times as many as green tea. Some researchers suggest the crunchy seeds even help flush fats from the digestive tract. Not surprisingly, with such amazing properties being touted, pomegranate products have hit the market in a big way in recent years. You can consume the juice, enjoy its flavor in everything from salad dressings to gummi bears, or massage its various pomades and creams into your hair and skin. The plump, delicious arils themselves make an impressive presentation and have more fiber with far fewer calories than the juice — sprinkle them over cereal, oatmeal, yogurt or ice cream, toss into salads or rice dishes for a nice crunch, or garnish any entrée.

Pomegranates are available nationwide, with most commercial production in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California.  Areas with hot summers and cool winters are ideal, since after flowering the fruit requires six to seven months to ripen, and cannot be ripened off the tree. Throw in the condition that pomegranates do not fruit well in humidity and Virginia would not normally seem a prime spot to tinker with this crop. However, pomegranates were grown in Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace Garden as a delicacy for the landed gentry, where they were planted with figs and espaliered pears. Thomas Jefferson, ever in search of exotic specimens, received starts from George Wythe and planted them at Monticello, where he tricked these and other tender trees by creating favorable growing conditions in his hillside orchard, terracing with a southeastern exposure, lengthening the season. 

Another trick to help fruit ripen is to plant at a south or west wall to protect and extend warmth. Winter-chill requirements for pomegranates are low, less than 200 hours below 40 degrees F. Watering should be regular and deep for best fruit development. To establish new plants, water every two to four weeks during the dry season and fertilize with two to four ounces of nitrogen fertilizer the first two springs. After that, just give an annual mulch of composted manure. Pomegranate trees can bear one year after planting out, but three years is more common.

More than a fabulous fruit

The pomegranate tree does not have to fruit to be valuable in the landscape — it is a strikingly beautiful ornamental. Growing a manageable 12 to 20 feet tall, the tree blooms in late May and early June with a crinkled, carnation-like bloom (red, pink, orange-red, or variegated), with a funnel-shaped base where the fruit begins to form. If flowering alone is the goal, these trees can be grown outdoors as far north as Washington, D.C., and will even flower in part-shade, although a sunny situation produces the most flowers. They tolerate drought and extremes of soil as long as they have good drainage and are very long-lived once established. The first pomegranate tree I ever saw in full flower was stunning. At the Norfolk Botanical Garden, it was effectively situated next to Japanese red maples where frilly orange blooms really popped against the burgundy-red leaves.

One option for gardeners who want to make the extra effort for fruit production in our zone 7 is to select smaller trees for portable pots, as the pomegranate makes a great container or tub plant. Try the Japanese dwarf variety P. granatum var. nana in a pot. This plant grows three to four feet as a greenhouse plant and will flower and fruit indoors. The flowers are red and the fruit is only two inches wide but abundant. The pomegranate self-pollinates, so you need only one tree to produce fruit. 

The variety “Sweet” also stays small and so does well in pots, which can grace the patio during the warm months and be moved indoors when the temperatures dip. On many varieties, damage can occur at 24 degrees, but the most cold-hardy variety, “Favorite,” from Russia, has withstood temperatures down to 10 degrees.

Whether the fruit is homegrown or purchased, the pomegranate is equal to the apple in its long storage life. The best temperature for storage is 32-41 degrees at 80-85 relative humidity. Under these conditions, fruits actually improve, becoming juicier and more flavorful. After scooping out the fruit from the pomegranate’s leathery skin, stuff the red shell with paper towels as floral designers do and affix it to your holiday wreath or preserve it in a dried arrangement. Once you decorate your home or garden with pomegranates, you, too, will find them irresistible.

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Va., where she runs her design business, Imagine That.

 

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