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The Pomegranate; a Botanical Sensation

Here is one bright red “ornament” that wasn´t packed away following the winter holidays. Consider the pomegranate, a marvel of nature´s finest work and a taste sensation to boot. When did you first encounter the pomegranate? I remember viewing the jewel-like ruby colored seeds in a salad, tossed with other ingredients and dressed with a light vinaigrette. What a delight and surprise to the palate. I was dazzled. Since that time I have used them often in my cooking and also, dried, as permanent decorative elements in my home during the winter season.

Reading from the Home & Garden section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, November 24, 2007, we learn that the pomegranate (Punica granatum) is native to Persia, from Iran to the Himalayas. It has been called a symbol of passion and fertility, and represents the coming of winter. It´s even been suggested that it was the pomegranate rather than the apple that Eve used to lure Adam into the Garden of Eden. Nevertheless, the fruit is part of our current love affair with things Mediterranean—olive oil, lavender and other heat-adapted plants that do well in our region. Its growing popularity may propel it into economic viability as our next boutique crop. The pomegranate is related to one of our local favorites—the crape myrtle—and, along with the persimmon, represents the last colorful fruits of the fall season.

According to Sunset Western Garden Book, the small tree or shrub (which can reach 10 to 15 feet), is deciduous, thrives in zones 5 to 24 in hot, sunny locations, and requires regular water if you plan to consume the fruit. They are actually quite drought tolerant, and are not subject to pests, are resistant to oak root fungus, and the deer don´t care for them. The fruit ripens in the late fall, and can be found in our markets until mid-winter. They will keep in the refrigerator for about 7 months. I purchased several at the end of the season and am keeping them refrigerated to see how they hold up.

To prepare the pomegranate, place the globe in a bowl of water in your sink, and work underwater. (The juice will stain your clothing – badly.) Cut the fruit in half and, working among the chambers with your fingers, release the little translucent capsules (called arils) which are filled with juice. Discard the bits of membrane that hold them secure. Then drain in a sieve. You´ll be left with a cupful or more of the delicious seeds to use in any recipe you are preparing. Or just eat them by the spoonful while standing at the sink.

To eat them, either chew lightly to extract the flavorful juice and discard what is left. Or chew as you would anything else and swallow. They are valued as a source of antioxidants, potassium and vitamin C.

Pomegranates have been with us since the mission period, having been brought to the New World by Cortez in l521. Today numerous varieties have been developed, but the one you´ll encounter most frequently in nurseries is the “Wonderful.” Large in size, deep red leathery rind protecting the delicious tangy seeds within, it is a long-lived tree in any soil. With orange red flowers in the spring, and ornamental foliage, it is a welcome addition to any garden. An inquiry made of our local nurseries revealed that a few have the tree in stock year round but primarily offer the plant in the spring when it´s in leaf. They stock several varieties in addition to “Wonderful,” all in the 5 gallon size. They come in fruiting, ornamental and dwarf varieties, so depending upon the effect you wish in your garden, be sure to purchase the appropriate stock.

It´s interesting to note that Gregory Levin, a Russian botanist, spent his life researching and rescuing 1,117 varieties. Cuttings from these trees are now at the USDA Repository at UC Davis, which makes them available to horticulturists through periodic tastings. Home gardeners eventually reap the benefits of this process.

The executive chef at Ironstone Vineyards, James Lehman, recently wrote a column in the Union Democrat extolling the virtues of the pomegranate. For his use in cooking he told of the availability of pomegranate products—molasses, juice, jalapeno jelly—in specialty shops, markets and at some wineries.

Whether you are inspired to plant a pomegranate in your garden, or prefer to consume what the markets offer, you can´t go wrong with this botanical marvel and taste delight.

Joan Bergsund, master gardener, is passionate about the pomegranate. In addition to consuming the fruit, she uses them in winter decor. If the whole fruits just sit out…they eventually dry up, shrink a little in size, retain their dark red color, and will last indefinitely.