Good Life

Over the Garden Fence | Pomegranate, the healthy fruit with ancient roots

“Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe.”

The passage from the book of Exodus about the robe of Aaron, Moses’ older brother, inspired me to write this column about pomegranates.

The nutrient-dense, antioxidant rich fruit has been looked at as a symbol of health, fertility and eternal life. Pomegranate (punica granatum) is one of the oldest known fruits and originated in Persia. It is widely cultivated throughout India and the drier parts of Southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. Spanish settlers introduced the pomegranate tree into California in 1769. In the U.S., pomegranates can be grown outside as far north as southern Utah and Washington, D.C., but trees seldom set fruit in these areas. The tree does adapt well to container culture and will sometimes fruit in a greenhouse, although they can get tall.

The pomegranate is a neat, rounded shrub or small tree that can grow to 20 or 30 feet, more typically reaching 12 to 16 feet in height, although there are dwarf varieties of pomegranates. It is usually deciduous, but in certain areas the leaves will persist on the tree. The trunk is covered by a red-brown bark, which later becomes gray. The branches are stiff, angular and often spiny. Pomegranates also are long-lived with specimens in Europe that are known to be more than 200 years of age.

The pomegranate has glossy, leathery leaves that are narrow and lance-shaped. It has attractive scarlet, white or variegated flowers that span more than an inch across and have five to eight crumpled petals and a red, fleshy, tubular calyx, which persists on the fruit. The flowers may be solitary or grouped in twos and threes at the ends of the branches. The pomegranate is self-pollinated as well as cross-pollinated by insects. Cross-pollination increases the fruit set, and wind pollination is insignificant.

The nearly round, 21/2 to 5 inch wide fruit is crowned at the base by the prominent calyx. The tough, leathery skin, or rind, typically is yellow overlaid with light or deep pink or rich red. The interior is separated by membranous walls, and white, spongy, bitter tissue is divided into compartments packed with sacs filled with sweetly acidic juicy, red, pink or whitish pulp, or aril. In each sac, there is one angular, soft or hard seed. High temperatures are essential during the fruiting period to get the best flavor. The pomegranate may begin to bear in one year after planting out, but two to three years is more common. Under suitable conditions, the fruit should mature some five to seven months after bloom.

The pomegranate can be raised from seed but may not be as successful. Cuttings root easily, and plants from them bear fruit after about three years. Twelve- to 20-inch-long cuttings should be taken in winter from mature, one-year old wood. The leaves should be removed and the cuttings treated with rooting hormone and inserted about two-thirds their length into the soil or into some other warm rooting medium. Plants also can be air-layered, but grafting is seldom successful. Pomegranates are relatively free of most pests and diseases. Minor problems include leaf and fruit spot and foliar damage by white flies, thrips, mealybugs and scale insects.

The pomegranate is equal to the apple in having a long storage life. It is best maintained at a temperature of 32 to 41 degrees and can be kept forseven months within this temperature range and at 80 percent to 85 percent relative humidity without shrinking or spoiling. When refrigerated in a plastic bag, pomegranates keep for up to two months. The fruits improve in storage, becoming juicier and more flavorful. The fruit can be eaten out of hand by deeply scoring several times vertically and then breaking it apart. The clusters of juice sacs are then lifted out and eaten. The sacs also make an attractive garnish when sprinkled on various dishes.

Pomegranate juice is now available year round, but you can purchase fresh pomegranates in most grocery stores between September and January. Pomegranate fruits can be juiced in several ways. The sacs can be removed and put through a basket press, or the juice can be extracted by reaming the halved fruits on an orange juice squeezer. Another approach starts with warming the fruit slightly and rolling it between the hands to soften the interior. A hole is then cut in the stem end which is placed on a glass to let the juice run out, squeezing the fruit from time to time to get all the juice. The juice can be used in a variety of ways: as a fresh juice, to make jellies, sorbets or cold or hot sauces, as well as to flavor cakes, baked apples, etc. Pomegranate syrup is sold commercially as grenadine. The juice also can be made into a wine.

Seeding a pomegranate may seem like a lot of work for just a piece of fruit, but getting at those seeds may be well worth it. The pomegranate is indeed a nutrient-dense food source rich in phytochemical compounds. Pomegranates contain high levels of flavonoids and polyphenols, potent antioxidants that offer protection against heart disease and cancer. A glass of pomegranate juice has more antioxidants than red wine, green tea, blueberries and cranberries. This ancient fruit recently made its way back into the news because of a compound found only in pomegranates, called punicalagin, has shown to benefit the heart and blood vessels. Punicalagin is the major component responsible for pomegranate’s antioxidant and health benefits. It not only lowers cholesterol, but it also lowers blood pressure and increases the speed at which heart blockages (atherosclerosis) melt away. Give this ancient fruit a try by drinking pomegranate juice.