There was a time when pomegranate trees or shrubs were quite common in gardens.
Then they became old fashioned and disappeared almost completely. Here and there an old tree still lingered in a garden and if its branches held fruit, it always lured passers-by. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or perhaps it’s the unique taste of the fruit, but this is still a sight that makes us want to pick the red cheeked fruit, tear open the tough peel and bite greedily into the juicy red pips, even when it’s definitely not our tree. It’s an urge, as if it’s simply our birthright! It’s a fruit that has even inspired poets, yet it’s probably impossible to explain exactly what a pomegranate tastes like. The scientific name for pomegranate, Punica granatum, is derived from pomuni granatum, which means ‘apple with many seeds’. The plant is indigenous to ancient Persia, was cultivated widely in ancient Greece, and the fruit was being lauded and described hundreds of years before Christ was born. It is even mentioned in the Bible.
Pomegranates are still cultivated commercially in India, the East, southern Europe and especially in California. Chefs prepare the most exotic dishes using pomegranates, and we like growing things we can eat, so a desire to plant them has crept back into the hearts of home gardeners. In response, nurseries have once more stocked up on this plant. Continual research is being done to produce cultivars that will be suitable for commercial cultivation, especially in the Western Cape and parts of the Karoo where the trees can be irrigated. There are apparently more than 1 100 cultivars on record; they differ according to size of fruit, thickness of peel, size of pip, colour of peel and the relationship between seed and fibre. Some cultivars are classified as practically seedless, while others are considered inedible due to the large, hard seeds with very little edible fibre.
Generally, the pomegranate is a large shrub or a small tree that grows to about 5 m tall. It is ideal as a specimen tree in a small garden; its interesting trunk and branches covered in narrow, bright green leaves look very impressive, and that is before it flowers and then carries the tempting fruit. It also makes a good screen plant, windbreak and hedge plant. The more it is trimmed, the denser it grows, plus the branches have rather sharp, thorny growths that make them useful along the boundaries of a property.
When do they bloom?
The pomegranate carries its scarlet flowers from spring to summer and the pale yellow fruit, with their blushing pink to red cheeks, develop and hang on the tree during January and February.
Most suitable climate
This plant will grow everywhere, but prefers dry or semi-dry climates with cool winters and warm summers and is resistant to temperatures as low as -10 °C. Although the plants are sensitive to severe frost, especially in late autumn and early spring, they can still withstand quite a bit of cold and frost in their dormant phase (in these regions they become deciduous). In a tropical environment, pomegranates remain evergreen. However, these regions are not ideal for fruit cultivation. The plants can still be used as ornamental trees or shrubs.
What they need
Location: full sun is best, but it will flower and fruit in semi-shade.
Soil: tolerates a wide variety of soil types – from deep and fertile loam to sandy, clay, stony, alkaline and acidic soil, and even soil with poor drainage. Planting holes that are well prepared using compost and bone meal are best for optimal growth and good fruit.
Water: medium to low water, and can be combined with other water-wise plants. For a good fruit harvest, trees need to be watered regularly during the growing season. Too little or too much water can cause the fruit to burst open.
Fertilizing: in the first two years after planting, feed young trees in late winter and early spring, using a product rich in nitrogen and potassium. When they are established and growing well, an annual mulch of compost or well-decomposed manure is sufficient.
No complicated pruning methods are necessary for these plants. The fruit are only carried at the tips of new growth, so prune the branches annually during the first three years to make sure you get the maximum number of new branches all around the tree. Thereafter cut away any dead branches to maintain the shape. With older plants, you can prune out some of the inner branches to improve circulation and let light in.
The fruit are ripe when they change colour and sound almost hollow when you knock on them. Rather pick the fruit before they ripen fully, otherwise they can burst open, especially in rainy weather. They can be stored for a long time without deteriorating. In fact, while they are sitting in a shallow dish on the dining room table, looking lovely, they are just becoming tastier and juicier. Pomegranates are exceptionally good for you; they are rich in vitamins and antioxidants that can help combat high cholesterol levels.
Propagate your own
Pomegranates can be propagated from seed, but semi-hardwood cuttings taken during winter are a better idea – especially if you are dealing with a special plant. Take 20 to 30 cm long cuttings, remove the leaves, dip them in hormone rooting powder and plant them about two thirds deep in a mixture of coarse river sand and fine compost. Put them in a warm place in light shade, and keep the mixture just moist.
In a nutshell
* Elegant fruit for eating and arranging.
* Easy grower in many climates.
* Low water consumption.
* Lovely tree for smaller gardens.