In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
The seeds of the pomegranate have many health benefits. Original watercolor by K. Haworth
Persephone's Pain is Our Pleasure
One of my favorite winter fruits is the pomegranate (Punica granatum). I have always loved the story of Persephone, the Goddess of Spring, who was abducted by Hades and carried down to the Underworld to become his wife. Because Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds while captive, she was forced by Zeus to spend part of each year with her vile husband. The annual burgeoning of spring is the signal that Persephone has once again been released from her captor/spouse. Conversely, the dying of plants in the fall is the signal that Persephone has once again joined her husband in Hell. I always felt that was a very high price to pay for eating six lousy pomegranate seeds...
Heady stuff for a plant that is native to the Himalayan region of Northern India. The pomegranate is a perennial flowering shrub that produces showy flowers in spring that develop into seed-filled fruits in the fall. The best known variety is 'Wonderful', but there are also miniature varieties that will thrive and produce for decades when grown in containers.
The pomegranate is ideally suited to warm, dry climates such as that of our region and has been cultivated for thousands of years in the Mediterranean. It will begin to set fruit one year after planting. It is not fussy about soil type but thrives in full sun. If you live in a cooler area, plant against a south facing wall to increase the heat.
Pomegranate is hardy and not prone to disease problems or insect infestations, which is probably the reason it has been around for so long. The pomegranate is even resistant to oak root fungus.
Pomegranates ripen naturally on the tree during the warm fall weather. They should be harvested before winter rains, which will cause the fruit to eventually split and rot. The fruits will last up to seven months in storage when refrigerated.
The health benefits of pomegranates are just coming to light. They are chock full of the antioxidants that keep bad cholesterol from oxidizing and causing hardening of the arteries. Pomegranates also inhibit blood from clotting and reduce the inflammation from arthritis by slowing down enzymes that will eventually break down cartilage. Studies even show that pomegranates may help in the fight against some types of cancer.
The shape of the shrub is very pleasing. It is naturally round and will grow to about 20 feet if left unpruned. The showy flowers are bright red/orange and 3 to 4 inches in size. They resemble roses or camellias in shape. Since the flowers are produced at the ends of the branches, it is best to frequently tip-prune to keep the plant low and bushy. More flowers mean more fruit, and by keeping the plant small you can easily reach the fruit when it ripens.
Picking the seeds from the fruit is time consuming and the juice will stain. However, the cleaned seeds can be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks for use in salads or as garnish on roasts
One of my favorite recipes using pomegranate seeds came from Martha Stewart and it is to simply add a handful of pomegranate seeds to cranberry orange relish. The tart seeds enhance the color of the relish and make it sparkle in your mouth when you bight down. And don't worry -- Persephone has already paid the bill.
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