Pomegranates, Punica granatum, are only briefly available in stores here. They are in season between September and February with the main harvest occurring from October to January. It should come as no surprise that this Middle Eastern native thrives in the dry climates of Arizona and California. It has been cultivated around the Mediterranean Sea for thousands of years. The Spanish city of Granada is named for the fruit.
The deciduous shrubs grow to be 12 to 20 feet tall. Cold hardy in Zones 7 to 10, pomegranates have few disease or pest problems. They are three years old before bearing fruit. The fruit takes five to seven months to ripen which explains a lot about what they cost. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, they flower three times a year setting fruit after each bloom cycle. The tubular red flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds. Though not fussy about pH, the shrubs need a hot sunny site with loamy soil and excellent drainage.
The seeds, called arils, are an excellent source of vitamins C and K, as well as a good source of folate, potassium and fiber. A serving of pomegranate juice contains three times more of the antioxidants punicalagin and punicic acid as a glass of red wine or a cup of green tea. Antioxidants interrupt the inflammatory process which underlies so many health issues. Research into the health benefits of pomegranates is ongoing.
In Greece the fruit is a symbol of Christmas. Pomegranates also have a significant role in a well-known Greek myth. The god of the Underworld, Hades, is searching for a queen. He has just completed a disappointing trip to Mount Olympus where every female immortal has turned down his offer. As he is preparing to turn his chariot homeward, he sees Persephone, goddess of vegetation, frolicking with some nymphs. In some versions of the tale Cupid shoots him with an arrow at this point, but in any event he is taken by her beauty, carries her off to his underworld kingdom and makes her his queen.
Persephone’s disappearance was quite distressing to her mother, Demeter the goddess of Earth’s fertility and agriculture. In her sorrow, the world becomes a cold and barren place as she goes about searching for her lost child. Big Daddy Zeus sees that he must do something before all his mortal worshippers starve to death. Acting on a tip, he sends Hermes to work out a deal with Hades.
Unfortunately, Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds while with Hades and so may return to the Earth for only half of the year. She and Demeter are so happy to be reunited that the Earth warms and produces all that its inhabitants need. It cools and becomes barren when she returns to her underworld throne.
I have a three-ingredient recipe for a very refreshing salad using arils. Peel navel oranges and cut them into round slices. Sprinkle with walnuts and arils. If you wish, sprinkle the nuts with powdered sugar and a little cinnamon first. This salad is great with brunch.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets the evil winterizing influence of Hades on the ornamental beds surrounding her home slow her down. She just spends more time writing gardening columns than gardening, munching pomegranate seeds defiantly.