By Dr. William C. Welch, Landscape Horticulturist
The pomegranate plant form is that of a small deciduous tree or large shrub, growing up to 25 feet tall. Pomegranates are multi-stemmed unless pruned to a single trunk. Originally grown for their fruit, they are also known for the beautiful flowers that can occur for several months in the spring and early summer. Most commonly, they are red-orange, but white, pink, and variegated flowers may also be found. Double-flowering types have blossoms that are carnation-like. Pomegranates are also useful for large hedges. Their foliage is shiny and dark green, and the stems are somewhat thorny.
Native to Arabia, Persia, Bengal, China, and Japan, pomegranates are sometimes hardy as far north as Washington, D.C., but are best adapted to the Deep South, where they have escaped cultivation in the Gulf Coast states.
Pliny considered pomegranates to be among the most valuable of ornamental and medicinal plants. Theophrastus provided an early description about 300 years before the Christian era. Many legends concerning the pomegranate have been handed down by Asian people. The many seeds are supposed to be a symbol of fertility. Legend also says that the pomegranate was the ‘tree of life’ in the Garden of Eden, and from this belief it became the symbol of hope and eternal life in early Christian art. The erect calyx-lobes of the fruit were the inspiration for Solomon’s crown and for all future crowns.
Pomegranates were often found in nineteenth century Southern gardens and nurseries. In his Southern Rural Almanac, and Plantation and Garden Calendar for 1860, Thomas Affleck listed them in his Washington County, Texas nursery, and said, “The pomegranate grows, thrives, and bears most admirably.”
For a period in the early 1900s, pomegranates were grown in commercial quantities in the U.S., but consumers have never really developed an appreciation of the pomegranate fruit. One of the few varieties still available is ‘Wonderful’, which, if picked and aged at room temperature for a month or two, will develop the rich, sweet taste characteristic of better-quality fruit varieties.
Although of very easy culture, pomegranates prefer a sunny location and deep soil. They thrive in acid or alkaline soils, and tolerate heavy clay as long as there is sufficient drainage. Many forms exist, and not all fruit well. Generally, double-flowering types provide little, if any, fruit. Mature specimens withstand drought well, but fruit often splits after rainy spells following extended dryness. Dormant hardwood cuttings root well (as do softwood cuttings) under mist in the summer.
In addition to eating fresh (it is very seedy), the fruit may be used in the preparation of syrups (especially grenadine), alcoholic beverages, and jellies. Plants of the dwarf and large-growing forms are sometimes available in the southern half of Texas. Plants tend to be long lived, but occasionally they freeze back to the ground. Interesting trials with pomegranates from Iran and Russia are being conducted in the Houston area by fruit specialists who believe that some of the plants may have superior fruiting, growth, and hardiness characteristics.