Before I moved to California, I didn’t have much exposure to pomegranates, Punica granatum. I admired the color and form of the fruit when used in tabletop displays depicting the bounty of the fall harvest at Thanksgiving, but that was about it.
Once here, I began to appreciate their appearance in the landscape in our Mediterranean climate. They can range from dwarf forms that do well in containers to shrubs and small trees in the ground growing to 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. They grow in Sunset Western Garden Zones 5 to 24.
Experts seem to agree that the plant originated from Iran, but has spread widely. Pomegranate is the symbol and namesake of the city Granada in Spain. Spanish settlers brought the plant to the New World. The plants live long with proper care.
The plants love full sun; they tolerate many different soil types. Pomegranates are moderate to regular water users.
The leaves are small giving the plants a fine texture. I especially enjoy that the leaves are curled and twisted when they first appear and then flatten out later as they mature. The flowers are dramatic, tubular and vivid red. There is a long blooming season in the spring.
The plant is self-pollinating and will begin to bear fruit one to three years after planting. The fruit ripens six to seven months after the flowers appear. The fruit is beautiful in all stages from green to red to burgundy.
I started off with a dwarf form pomegranate in a container. I later moved it into the ground where it grew to 10 feet over the next two years. I found that I missed having it on the patio, so I got another one to grow in a container.
The California Master Gardener Handbook lists the varieties most grown in California for their fruit as “Wonderful,” “Ruby Red,” “Granada,” “Ambrosia” and Eversweet.” Sunset Western Garden Book lists some varieties grown more for their ornamental value: “Chico,” “Nana,” and “Legrellel.”
Aside from the fruit, various cultures have found many other uses for pomegranate per the Purdue University Horticultural website. The bark is rich in tannins and has been widely used for tanning leather. The Japanese make an insecticide from the bark. The rind and flowers have been used to make dyes. The leaves have been steeped in vinegar to make ink. Medicines made from bark and stems have been used to treat tapeworms. The wood can be used in small craft projects.
In talking to people who have grown up in our area, eating pomegranates seems to hold a very special place in their childhood memories. When I admitted to ignorance on what to do with pomegranates, they graciously clued me in.
As children, they waited until the fruit split on the tree when the flavor was at its tasty peak. Commercial growers pick earlier, one site said growers listen for a metallic sound when they tap the fruit. If the fruit has not split it will keep for months in the refrigerator and continue to ripen. Allowing the fruit to split also increases the risk of rot and attracts ants.
The rind encases the seeds and juice sacs that are called arils. My friends taught me to split the fruit in chunks and soak it in water. The juicy arils sunk to the bottom then the water and rind could be poured off. The seeds and juice sacs can be eaten directly, sprinkled on salads or used in cooking.
Other recipes call for using the juice. The Internet states that the juice can be easily extracted from the pomegranate. I did not find the juicing experience easy at all. It wasn’t complicated but it was very, very messy. I pressed the arils through a wire sieve. The juice flew everywhere: my sink, my walls, my clothes and my hair. I was also surprised how many pomegranates it took to make a cup of juice. Now I understand why pomegranate juice is so expensive.
The juice can be the base for drinks, jellies, syrups and even wine. Pomegranate juice is a good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium and antioxidants. The calorie counts for a pomegranate range from 104 to 234, depending on size. If you drink pomegranate juice regularly, the National Institute of Health’s database, ”Medline Plus,” does suggest you let your health care provider know, as it can change the rate of metabolism of some classes of medications.
Karen Metz is a master gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the master gardener’s office at 784-1322.