Pomegranates In Paradise
by Brian Barth
Wine red in color, bursting at the seams and flavored like a strong cocktail, pomegranates (Punica granatum) conjure up our hedonistic desires. The fruit is featured in as many, or more, Greek myths than both olive branches and grape leaves. Based on the historical geography of the Middle East where the Garden of Eden is presumed to have been located, some scholars believe that pomegranates were more likely the fruit that tempted Adam and Eve, not apples. Ever since, the red orbs and their fleshy, kernel-like seeds have been the muse of history’s great artists, from Botticelli to Picasso.
However sacred or profane the pomegranate’s journey through the past, today it has an undeniable allure as a horticultural specimen. This may be due in part to its reported health benefits—it is widely touted as a heart tonic and off the charts in antioxidant content—but the plant itself has many virtues in the landscape.
Native to the Middle East and widely cultivated around the Mediterranean Basin for millennia, pomegranates are allied with olives, grapevines and figs, aesthetically and functionally. Pomegranates grow as thorny, suckering shrubs—not words that give a good first impression for a plant. With narrow leaves pleasingly reminiscent of an olive tree and a natural vase-like form, they are more aesthetically compelling than they are often given credit for. Approximately as cold hardy as fig trees (12 degrees Fahrenheit), pomegranates, like figs, are amenable to container culture, allowing them to be brought indoors for winter in cold climates.
Like other species that hail from the cradle of civilization, pomegranates like lean soil and hot, dry weather. Experienced gardeners know that figs and grapes tend to produce less fruit the more they are fertilized and the same is true for pomegranates. Training them against a south-facing wall is advised in marginal climates to ensure the fruit ripens to perfection. Excessive rainfall or over-irrigation can cause the fruit to split and turn moldy as it ripens.
For many reasons, from drainage and air circulation to microclimate enhancement and overwintering, grow pomegranates in large, caster-mounted patio planters—unless you’re gardening in California or Arizona where conditions are ideal. Most varieties grow to 10 or 12 feet, but any pomegranate can be coppiced down to five or six feet after the autumn harvest and wheeled into a protected place such as a garage or sunroom for winter.
The pomegranate is often grown solely for practical purposes—it has few peers as an impenetrable fruiting hedge. With flowers that rival a tropical hibiscus, ruby red fruit and bright yellow fall foliage, it is much more than a drab backdrop. It is one of the ultimate plants to feature in a Mediterranean-themed patio garden where it pairs beautifully with mottled tan flagstone, salmon-colored bougainvillea and electric purple-blue salvias like ‘Indigo Spires’. To really make a showcase of a pomegranate shrub, train it into a three-stemmed patio tree and watch the muscular trunks twist into gnarled shapes as they age. Despite superficial appearances, pomegranates are not short-lived weedy shrubs—specimens at Versailles have been documented for over two centuries in age.
Even if you lack the long hot season needed to produce fruit, pomegranates are a worthwhile ornamental. Indeed, there are numerous varieties that have been bred solely for that purpose: some that are under five feet tall, some with fruit intended for decorating rather than eating and others with double, bicolored flowers. The flowers are so attractive to hummingbirds that the ubiquitous red plastic hummingbird feeders seem to have been modeled after them.
If you do succeed in ripening a crop of pomegranates, watch for the fruit to morph from globe-shaped to having flattish sides. It is perfectly ripe when the exterior turns from a hard glossy rind to a more pliable and leathery texture and makes a metallic sound when tapped. There are five ounces of fresh juice in each full-size pomegranate, which can be extracted with any device meant for juicing oranges. Eating the fruit out of hand is a laborious process that benefits from a ‘slow food’ mindset—the flavor is outstanding and is best enjoyed in the company of others.
Brian Barth is a landscape architect who specializes in urban farms and edible landscapes. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Horticulture magazine. Subscribe to Horticulture and don't miss a single story!