The Pomegranate or “seeded apple” (Punica granatum) is a fruit of many legends and traditions. This many-seeded fruit with an upright calyx, or “crown,” has been a symbol of fruitfulness, abundance, fertility, ambition, prosperity, and good luck since ancient times. Frequently mentioned in the Bible, the Talmud, and the Koran, as well as in early Hindu and Greek writings, this striking plant was first cultivated on the Iranian Plateau and northern India. From there, cultivation spread further east and west. The fruit is even mentioned in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and depicted in their early art. Some Jewish biblical scholars believe this was the real apple of Adam and Eve lore, which makes perfect sense since the apple of that time was essentially inedible. Today, India grows most of the world’s supply of pomegranates.
Pomegranates were introduced to California in 1769, and even earlier in the mid-Atlantic British colonies where climatic factors hindered its success. But by the 1990s the fruit had a firm foothold in American cuisines and is no longer viewed as a novelty crop.
Pomegranates grow best in semiarid, mild climates with winter or summer rainfall; 7 to 22 inches of precipitation is optimal. When grown in the right conditions, the plant is extremely hardy and very long-lived. Trees more than 200 years old have been recorded in France. Besides providing fruit, Punica granatum and its many varieties—possibly up to 500—are well-suited as a foundation planting, hedge, or border companion depending on the plant’s growth habit. Deciduous glossy-green leaves turn a brilliant deep yellow in the fall. In a mild winter, some varieties may behave more like evergreens. Flower color ranges from white or pink to deep orange with some very showy bicolors as well.
The fruit of a pomegranate is considered a berry and contains 200 to 1,400 seeds arranged between layers of spongy pulp within a thick, leathery red to light-red skin; varieties with off-white, green, or lighter red skins are less common. The juicy, gem-like seeds, or arils, vary in flavor from a winey, earthy taste, through tart-sweet, to very sweet, depending on ripeness and variety. Like the skins, the arils can be creamy white to deep red.
To determine ripeness, choose fruit that is close to the cracking stage but still smooth. A tap to the surface should yield a metallic sound. Fruit will keep up to seven months at 32 to 41°F at 80 to 85 percent relative humidity. Methods of removing arils from the spongy pulp without permanently staining your utensils, skin, clothing, or cutting boards have become the butt of many a culinarian’s jokes. One popular method is to score the fruit’s skin and pull it apart under water. Once the fruit is in pieces, turn the sections inside out so that the seeds pop off; bits of pulp will float and can be skimmed off. Another method is illustrated below.
Getting at the juicy arils in three easy steps:
Pomegranate juice is rich in polyphenols with antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial properties, and is high in vitamins B5, B6, C, and potassium. If all you want is the juice, cutting the fruit in half and using an orange juicer is a quick, although messy, approach. Another method is to break up the arils by rolling a warm fruit on a solid surface before piercing it at the stem end and squeezing the juice into a glass.
Worldwide, pomegranate is used as a flavoring in sauces, soups, and marinades, sprinkled over salads, fruit dishes and vegetables, and dried and used in trail mix or granola; the right variety even makes a great jelly. In Asia and the Mediterranean, the dry seeds are ground to produce Anardana, an acidic spice used in chutneys and curries. From the Himalayan highlands, wild sour pomegranate, or Daru, has pale green skin and white arils that are quite sour. Daru is used to improve digestion and treat diarrhea and dysentery.
Besides its food value, pomegranates are used for decorative purposes around the world at various holidays. All parts of the plant are high in tannins and have been used to cure leathers for centuries. Additionally, dyes are made from the arils, rind, and flowers in many parts of the world.
Pomegranate varieties developed domestically are readily available at specialty nurseries and through online retailers. Indian and other Asian varieties may be more difficult to find; search online or contact groups that focus on edible gardening like the San Diego Edible Garden Society. Unfortunately, the pomegranates reputed to be the best in the world for both flavor and nutrition are from beleaguered Kandahar, Afghanistan. With so many varieties to choose from, both here and abroad, explore until you find the stock that is perfect for your needs.
Plants will grow and produce fruit in Sunset zones 7 to 16 and 18 to 24. Winter protection may be necessary in the coldest of these zones; positioning plants in a southern exposure in front of a light wall to reflect light and heat is helpful. Plants can tolerate some frost and even temperatures down to 10°F for short times. Varieties with harder seeds are more cold hardy.
Branches are stiff, angular, and may be spiny; trees grow 12 to 16 feet tall, often more. Deciduous opposite or sub-opposite leaves are narrow and oblong (up to two inches long by one inch wide). The plants need sun, deeply aerated loam and sandy loam soils, and warm-to-high temperatures during the fruiting period for best flavor.
Most blossoms consist of five to eight crumpled petals; others have pompom-like doubles. Fruit appears after the second or third year and ripens six to seven months after flowering. Plants are self-fertile but cross-pollination by insects will increase fruit set, as does adequate rainfall or irrigation.
After the first growing season, prune saplings back to two feet in late winter and allow four or five shoots to develop evenly around the main stem. Remove suckers. Continue to shorten growth during the first three years to encourage even and full branching.
• ‘Wonderful’ has characteristic orange–red flowers and true red, rather tough skin with winey, sweet-tart juice and soft seeds.
• ‘Ambrosia’ has very large fruit with pale red skin and purple pulp.
• ‘Angel Red’ is an early producer that is extra juicy with soft seeds.
• ‘Sweet’ has ornamental yellow flowers and very sweet pink pulp.
• ‘Utah Sweet’ is also very sweet with pink skin and pulp and soft seeds.
• ‘Red Silk’ produces medium-to-large, sweet-tart fruit and a growth habit that is suitable for growing in containers.
• ‘Early Wonderful’ and ‘Francis’ are prolific producers.
• ‘Green Globe’ is just what its name infers.
• ‘Ariana’ grows well in hot inland areas and has sweet-tart juice and very soft seeds.
• ‘Kashmir Blend’ has deep red arils with intensely flavored juice.
• ‘Ganesh’ is a well-known Indian variety with green skin and light red arils with soft seeds.
• ‘Sirenevyi’ ripens late and is great for eating fresh with a sweet, complex flavor, and soft seeds.