Throughout history, the pomegranate has been revered as a symbol of fertility, health and rebirth.
"The pomegranate has been in cultivation for roughly 3,000 years. It was a staple for the Egyptians and Babylonians," says pomegranate enthusiast Ed Laivo. "It was also carried throughout the world by sailors, who used it as a staple for sea travel because it keeps so well."
The pom is experiencing a renaissance of its own: The fruit is a nutritional dynamo. Pomegranates are very high in Vitamin C, calcium and antioxidants, specifically lycopene.
At the National Clonal Germaplasm Repository, ancient species of pomegranate are collected from their native lands, including Iran, Turkey and Turkmenistan.
"Hybridizers can use them for developing new and exciting varieties — selections of poms that can be more adapted to drier climates, larger fruit, seedless fruit and better fruit for juicing," Ed says.
Seedless varieties have been developed because all the juice comes from the aril. "The aril is a seed sack that has fluid in it, and that surrounds the seed. So, no seed means more room for juice," he says.
Pomegranates vary in color, from soft pink such as 'Ambrosia' to red, orange and yellow. And even people who aren't fans of eating pomegranates can claim a variety. 'Nana' is a dwarf pomegranate that's purely ornamental; the plant has great spring flowers.
Tips for eating pomegranates
How can you tell when a pomegranate is ripe? Take a look at the bottom of the fruit, Ed advises. "If the calyx at the bottom of the pom is brown and the flowers are all dried, that's a good indication it's ready to eat."
Cutting into a pomegranate can be messy. A trick for avoiding the mess is to first cut off the calyx, score the sides of the fruit, then put it into a bucket of water and break it up — nice and clean. The choice to spit or swallow the seeds is purely personal. The seeds are harmless.
Growing your own
"Pomegranates for the home gardener are actually wonderful because they're maintenance-free, relatively pest-free, and have low water requirements," Ed says.
And the trees themselves stay a manageable size. In fact, pomegranates grow on the end of new wood, so pruning branches where there's no fruit controls the size of the tree.
Plant your pom in a pot that has good drainage (holes in the bottom). Start with a good basic potting mix and plant as you would any tree or shrub. After you remove the stake, cut the plant off at about a foot. To keep the plant under even tighter control, you can maintain it as a bush for its entire life.