The Dry Garden: Growing pomegranates
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Plant a pomegranate and the hole you dig drives straight through time -- Persephone deep, founding fathers deep. Pomegranates are in Greek and Persian mythology, the Bible, the Koran, on the seal of the British Royal College of Physicians. Scholarly gardening articles cite pomegranates as having figured in gardens in the Colonial Carolinas. Spanish settlers brought them to California. Search the botanical name Punica granatum in technical journals and you find the chemists at L’Oreal are onto them: Pomegranates are named in a new patent for shampoo. Health publications carry studies on the anti-oxidant properties. Martha Stewarts everywhere recommend dried pomegranates for Christmas wreaths.
But gardeners can turn up a lot of trivia without learning one key fact: how to tell when they are ripe.
After cutting through a hard but reasonably ruddy pomegranate that has been slowly maturing all summer, I can impart this: A first step to knowing when a pomegranate is ripe is taking a beautiful, glossy fruit, cutting it open and discovering that the juice around its clustered seeds is plentiful enough to squirt and garnet enough to stain. Juice famed for its balance of tartness and sweetness, complexity and high sophistication was barely there in mine. What was there was sour.
Having read The Times’ farmers market columnist David Karp write about pomegranates for years, I knew before tasting the fruit that I had jumped the gun. Karp has written that pomegranates typically ripen in October. No two growing seasons are the same, but to judge by the state of my pomegranates, Karp might have meant late October. Tantalizingly, last year Karp reported on the new, early ripening variety Angel Red that is available through Monrovia. This much is clear from the newly installed plants in my sun-blistered garden: Pomegranates are superb landscape plants for some of the toughest settings in Southern California. They like it hot, so hot that last summer Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suffered ridicule when, trapped in Washington by a bickering Congress, he complained that he was missing his pomegranates flowering -- in August, in the Mojave.
This heat-loving tendency can mean that pomegranates planted in the cooler reaches of the L.A. Basin and along the coast may never produce anything particularly delicious for the kitchen. Karp noted that one variety that’s good for cool coastal conditions is the Eversweet pomegranate, which is listed by the Dave Wilson Nursery and may also be available at the rare fruit grower Papaya Tree Nursery.
Gardeners in the San Gabriel foothills and San Fernando Valley, note well: Pomegranates like granitic soils and are famed for their drought tolerance. My approach has been to water newly planted trees regularly. This regimen will slow down as they mature. The speed of their growth is remarkable -- easily three feet in the first season. The foliage is stunning, a particularly good middle green compatible with a dusky Mediterranean plant palette. The late-blooming flowers kept setting fruit through late August and have kept appearing even as the coppery tones appearing in the leaves presage an autumnal swan song. Leaves will fall, then the plant will enter winter dormancy.
Anyone interested in pomegranates should be sampling fruit in farmers markets, then checking to see if your favorite varieties are compatible with your climate zone. The next step is to think about using pomegranates as patio trees, or to create an allee or hedge. If opting for either of the two latter options, shape the plants gently and sparingly because the fruit sets on new growth.
I noticed this description of how to gauge ripeness in a fact sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers: “The fruits are ripe when they have developed a distinctive color and make a metallic sound when tapped.”
Karp offered this additional advice by email: “I’d look for a medium or large fruit, well filled out (not scrawny and hollow).’ The fruit should be ‘fully colored’ for its variety, he said -- red for Foothill and Wonderful, the two most common varieties.
Thank goodness that pomegranates are forgiving. They became synonymous with fertility for the many seeds in one fruit, but they are also so fecund that even in my first growing season, there are many more coming. I’m back to watching pomegranates ripen until they are the dazzling deep red of Dorothy’s shoes.
-- Emily Green
Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.
Photo credit, whole fruit and flower: Emily Green. Photo credit, cut fruit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.