Pomegranate (Punica granatum) has long been revered as a symbol of strength, abundance, hope, joy and fertility.1,2 Both the Talmud and Bible praise it, and it features heavily in mythologies from various regions, including Egypt, Greece and China.3 Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, and Muhammad, founder of Islam, also venerated the fruit.4
According to foodreference.com, Muhammad “considered the pomegranate to be a precious fruit filled with nutrition, bringing both emotional and physical peace.”5 Today, we know pomegranates are indeed a rich source of health-promoting antioxidants.
According to a 2008 study,6 which compared the potency of 10 different polyphenol-rich beverages, pomegranate juice scored top billing as the healthiest. Overall, its antioxidant potency was found to be “at least 20% greater” than any of the other beverages.
Pomegranates also contain compounds that stimulate mitophagy.7,8 Mitophagy is the process of cleaning out your mitochondria, allowing them to function at their best, which is crucial for normal cellular functioning and homeostasis,9 and thus for health and longevity.
According to the Madera Chamber of Commerce,10 pomegranate trees have been cultivated for thousands of years across the Mediterranean region of Asia, Africa and Europe. Spanish settlers brought the tree to California in 1769.
Since then, cultivation of pomegranate spread through the more arid states. According to Madera Chamber of Commerce, California’s commercial pomegranate cultivation “is concentrated in Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties, with small farms in Imperial and Riverside counties.”11
Being drought tolerant and self-pollinating, pomegranate is simple to grow either in a large pot (kept indoors or out) or permanently planted in your garden. While you could start it from seed, to ensure excellent fruit, it’s best to start it from a cutting. While the plant typically grows into a bushy shrub if left to its own devices, you can train it into a small tree by some strategic pruning.
For container gardens, gardeningknowhow.com12 recommends using a 10-gallon pot for your tree. Fill the container a quarter of the way full with potting soil. Wash off the top 1 inch of soil from the root ball to encourage the roots to establish, then place it into the center of the pot and fill with soil around the root ball. Keep your tree in a location that gets at least six hours of full sun and go it indoors if temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).
If you’re in climate Zones 7b through 12, you can plant your pomegranate directly in your garden. Choose a sunny location with plenty of space to grow. A full-grown pomegranate shrub or tree may need upward of 20 feet diameter space.13 If you don’t have that kind of space, keep it contained through pruning.
If you’re plotting on using it as a hedge, allow about 10 feet of space between each plant. Yet another alternative is to grow it as an espalier along a wall or fence. For tips on how to properly prune your pomegranate, based on the shape you’re looking for, see this article from the Organic Gardening Resource Center.14 The featured video also shows how to prune your pomegranate to train it into a tree.
Pomegranate prefers loamy soil with excellent drainage, but can adapt to most soil types. Water liberally once a week during the summer. Once established, you may only need to water once every three or four weeks.
During the first two years, fertilize with an organic balanced (10-10-10) fruit tree fertilizer in November, February and May, keeping the fertilizer a few inches away from the trunk. In the third year, you can cut feeding down to twice a year. Grow Organic Peaceful Valley recommends giving it about 1 ounce per foot of tree.
Gardeningknowhow.com15 recommends pruning crossed branches once the tree is a year ancient, and cutting off shoots, leaving just three to five shoots per branch. If training it into a tree, leave five or six main scaffolding branches and cut the rest (see video).
Dead wood is best pruned off during the winter. Should an unexpected frost hurt or kill your pomegranate, consider leaving it for a while. Oftentimes, it will grow new suckers that can replace the dead trunk.
The featured video by Grow Organic suggests growing pomegranate as a shrub rather than a tree if you live in Zone 7b, the coldest climate zone, as this will increase the chances of one or more trunks surviving a freeze. Grow Organic also recommends:16
“When doing maintenance pruning as the tree grows, prune lightly, and never trim all the branches in the same year. Pomegranates fruit on small new shoots that come from wood that is more than one year ancient, so pruning all new growth back at once can result in nothing to harvest the following seasons. You should also prune back any new suckers that you don’t want to grow into trunks.”
Pomegranates are in season from August to December, hence its moniker, “the jewel of autumn.” While most pomegranate trees will start bearing fruit as early as the second year, it may take five or six years before you start getting substantial harvests. In the beginning, many or most of the fruits may simply fall off before reaching maturity. You can tell the fruit is ripe by its heft and sound.17 According to the Pomegranate Council:18
“A excellent, ripe pomegranate should feel heavy, as if it’s very full of juice (which it is!), and the skin should be firm and taut. The skin color varies from medium red to deep red with a fresh leather-like appearance. Surface abrasions do not affect the quality of the fruit.”
A mature fruit will also have a metallic sound when tapped. Fruit left to overripen on the tree will eventually split open. Excess water may also cause them to split. Split fruit are still edible, but cannot be stored whole for any length of time. To harvest, avoid ripping the fruit off the branch. Use pruning shears or scissors instead.
When it comes to eating the pomegranate, you have a couple of options. You can juice it like you would an orange, using either a manual or electrical juice press, or scrape out the arils (the juice-filled seed sacs) and use them in salads or as dessert toppings.
Each aril contains a small, crunchy fiber-rich seed, which is completely edible, and the Pomegranate Council recommends eating the arils whole, seed and all. To get the arils out, the Council recommends:19
- Cutting off the crown, then cutting the pomegranate into sections
- Placing the sections in a bowl of water, then rolling out the arils with your fingers. Discard everything else
- Straining out the water and enjoying the arils whole
An simple-open alternative is demonstrated in the Mama Natural video above. Like apples, whole pomegranates can stay fresh for several weeks when stored in a cool, dry place, and up to three months refrigerated in a plastic bag. You can also freeze the arils for even longer storage. The juice can be frozen for up to six months as well.20
Marinades, sauces, and salsas are fantastic uses for pomegranates. The arils can also be mixed with other foods such as olives, beets, avocados, cucumbers, apples, pears or persimmons.
Another option: Try dropping the arils into sparkling cider for a festive and tasty holiday drink. You can find a variety of recipes featuring pomegranate on the Pomegranate Council’s website,21 including appetizers, beverages, main courses and desserts.
Allrecipes.com is another brilliant source for culinary inspiration. Here’s a simple pomegranate spinach recipe22 from Allrecipes to get you started if you’ve never cooked with this delectable fruit before.
Spinach Pomegranate Salad (4 servings)
- 1 10-ounce bag of baby spinach leaves, rinsed and drained
- 1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts (optional)
- 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 pomegranate; arils separated
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette
Place spinach in salad bowl and top with onions, feta, walnuts and sprouts. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top and drizzle with vinaigrette.