Ancient Treasure Still Delights

Pomegranate is a plant rooted in ancient history and mythology. It is native to the sandy or rocky scrublands of its Iran and the Himalayas in northern India to the Mediterranean regions of Asia, Africa and Europe, where it has been cultivated since ancient times. Punica granatum L., belongs to the family Punicaceae or Pomegranate family. Punica, is from the latin name for Carthage, where the best pomegranates were brought to Italy by the Romans. The fruit is used today as it was traditionally, and regardless of its ancient history, pomegranate remains a valuable, useful and important species throughout the world.

Spanish settlers first introduced the pomegranate to California in 1769 where it is grown for its fruit, mostly in the dry zones of that state and Arizona. In California, commercial pomegranate cultivation is concentrated in Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties, with small plantings in Imperial and Riverside counties.

There were approximately 2,000 acres of pomegranate planted in these areas in the 1920s, declining from lack of demand in the 1930s. Fresh plantings were made when demand increased in the 1960s. Gnarly, one-hundred year old specimens salvaged from old orchards in the Central Valley of California were planted at Wing Lei in the Wynn Las Vegas to provide the mystical charm for the garden backdrop to the restaurant.

The pomegranate is a very attractive shrub or small tree for the home landscape that reaches 6-15 feet tall, frequently with multiple stems and a strong tendency to sucker from the base. The slender branches start out upright then droop gracefully.

Unpruned shrubs have a decidedly weeping or fountain shaped habit. A pomegranate can be trained treelike to a single leader or grown as a graceful specimen. Either way, you will need to remove the many suckers that constantly arise from the roots, and keep the main stem and main laterals free from suckers, too.

Since they flower on new growth, pomegranates should be pruned in the dormant season. They should begin bearing after three or four years, and mature, properly pruned, trees can produce more than 300 pounds of fruit per year.

Planted four to six feet apart, a row of pomegranates makes a colorful and dense hedge, but they are at their best in the mixed shrub border. Pomegranates can be grown in a large container on the patio and brought indoors in winter. Use the tiny dwarfs for edging or in patio planters. They sometimes are used for bonsai.

Its branches are twiggy, dressed with clusters of small shiny leaves, giving a slightly ‘tufted’ appearance. In spring they emerge with a bronzy-green color, and in autumn they turn golden yellow.

Pomegranates have beautiful orange-red trumpet shaped flowers with ruffled petals. The flowers are about two inches long, often double, and are produced over a long period in summer.

The pomegranate fruit is globose, two to three inches in diameter, and shiny reddish or yellowish green when mature. Its unusual interior is composed of sections of seeds covered in sacks of fleshy juice, imbedded in the cream colored walls of the fruit. This structure often spilts open to reveal the ruby-colored seeds, which are the edible portion. These are usually eaten fresh, hand extracted from the surround membrane of the fruit wall. It is up to you weather to eat the seeds with the fruit or to suck out the juice and spit them out.

The fruits should not be pulled off, but clipped close to the base so as to leave no stem if they are intended primarily to enhance table arrangements and other fall (harvest-time) decorations. Too much sun exposure causes sunscald, blemishes and scaling of the rind. Harvest pomegranate fruits before they are fully mature (before they split) and store in a refrigerator to ripen. The fruit continues to ripen in cold storage, and the flavor only improves. They can be kept this way for six months. Jelly and wine are traditional uses of pomegranate juice and the cooling, slightly acidic syrup is the main ingredient of grenadine used to flavor drinks.

Pomegranates do best in climates with long hot, dry summers and cool winters and thrives on calcareous, alkaline soil and on deep, acidic loam and a wide range of soils in between these extremes. They are also fairly salt and drought tolerant, making it ideally suited to Mediterranean climates. Pomegranates need regular watering, but do best in areas with low summertime humidity and prefer full sun. Dormant pomegranates can tolerate winter temperatures down to 15 degrees F, but they can be severely damaged by a late frost that comes after new growth has begun in spring.

There are several cultivars selected just for the showy flowers that do not produce fruit. ‘Chico’, Dwarf Carnation Pomegranate, can be kept under two feet and produces double flowers over an extended season. ‘Legrellei’ is a dense shrub, six to eight feet, with double creamy white flowers with pink stripes. ‘Nochi Shibari’ has double dark red flowers. ‘Nana’ (dwarf pomegranate) is one to three feet tall with orange-red single flowers. ‘Tayosho’ has light apricot colored flowers. ‘Alba Plena’ has double white flowers.

Popular fruiting varieties include ‘Wonderful,’ which has double orange-red flowers and large, five inch fruits; ‘Paper Shell,’ which has a very thin outer skin; ‘Fleishman,’ which is said to have the sweetest fruits; and ‘King’ with double red flowers and large, sweet fruits.

Pete Duncombe is Curator of Gardens for the Las Vegas Springs Preserve.