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Roger's Tree Pick: pomegranate

This is the time of year when fall fruits are coming into maturity and the pomegranate holds wonderful qualities as an edible fruit and as holiday décor.

This is one fruit that I am especially fond of, both as an ornamental landscape plant and also for its nutritious juice.

Although pomegranates grew in the world before the dawn of agriculture, they were one of the first domesticated crops – along with olives, grapes, figs and dates – in northern Iran and Turkey. They have since naturalized throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.

The largest commercial production of fruit is right here in California in the San Joaquin Valley. Thousands of acres are planted in the Wonderful variety.

The botanical name, Punica granatum, is in its own family of Punicaceae. The flowers can be red, orange-red, pink or yellow. There is even a dwarf type called Nana which can be grown as a container specimen or a low hedge.

The pomegranate naturally grows as a rounded large shrub or a small tree to a height of 15 to 20 feet and as broad, though it is often kept pruned to about 10 feet high and wide. It has showy red flowers at the branch tips in spring.

The fruit is round to five inches wide and dappled with yellow, pink or red; it contains seedy sacs (called arils) with a sweet-tart juicy pulp and is a beautiful fruit to the eye as well.

The pomegranate is deciduous in the winter, losing its golden yellow foliage in fall with the fruit hanging on for quite a few months after maturing. Its chilling hours are fairly low, only 500 hours or so, and that makes them adaptable to many warm and temperate regions of the southland.

Fruits are harvested when they reach full color and are fat and almost splitting. They can be stored up to six months in the refrigerator or a couple on months on the countertop.

To eat fresh, cut into quarters or eighths and pull back to expose the juicy sacs; eat those red seeds and enjoy a flavorful taste.

The colorful blood-red seeds are great as a garnish on many culinary dishes, from sprinkled on a slice of barbecued pork loin to a dash or two atop a banana split.

The juice is heralded as a great source of valuable antioxidants, along with vitamins C and K, potassium, iron and fiber.

The sweet-tart juice is now blended with many other fruit juices for a bit of a punch and for its vibrant color. But be careful, as just a few drops of the fresh juice can stain clothing.

As a child I remember the “Shirley Temple” or “Roy Rogers” as a real treat when going out to a restaurant with Mom and Dad; grenadine juice from pomegranates was a part of that blend, along with soda water.

There are many varieties to search for if you’re into this unique and delectable fruit; “Wonderful” is a very popular type. Go plant-hunting for King, Sweet, Ever-Sweet, Utah Sweet, Granada, Angel Red and more. Several local nurseries have them available now with fruit on them.

Pomegranates tolerate a wide variety of soils, growing well even in alkaline soil. They are resistant to oak root fungus and take considerable drought but produce better fruit with regular moisture.

I even like to use them against a wall plane as an espalier or trained along a fence line for camouflage or screening.

So, don’t be too quick to cruise the produce section of your local market without glancing at the “red-fruit,” the pomegranate, and try some. Also, check out the refrigerator section to look for the juice, or grow your own in your garden and become more sustainable.

Roger Boddaert, maker of natural gardens, can be reached at (760) 728-4297.

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