Plant of the Week
Latin: Punica granatum
Plants offer up many levels of entertainment. To the uninitiated, they represent only a piece of greenery in a world populated with other, more pressing and immediate issues. But if you consider plants in a more comprehensive way, you quickly discover they are part of an intricate web of history, art, culture, language and biology that swirls around us in our everyday lives. Pomegranates, Punica granatum, for example, have a connection with everything from hand grenades to the modern-day fight against cancer.
Pomegranates are shrubs of the Lythraceae family, which includes woody trees such as crape myrtles and herbaceous plants such as the lythrums and cigar flower. It can grow to 15 feet tall and wide, but it is slow-growing and is usually seen in smaller sizes in southern climates, where it survives freezing temperatures down to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaves are nondescript, opposite, oblong, entire and to 2 inches long and .75-inch wide that are evergreen in the tropics but deciduous in temperate regions.
Bright red flowers to 2 inches across appear in mid-spring, with a base number of four or five petals that are often many times doubled in cultivated forms. The red or yellow-orange leathery, hexagonal fruit (technically a berry) is the size of a tennis ball and terminates in a prominent crown-like calyx. To the uninitiated, eating the fruit is a puzzle, because inside it is filled with 400 to 1,200 seeds, each encased in a bag-like watery aril that is usually red in color.
Pomegranates probably originated in Persia, possibly in and around the modern-day countries of Iran and Iraq, which have as of late occupied so much of our treasure and attention. Along with wheat and dates, it may be one of our oldest cultivated crops. By the dawn of written history, the shrub had been spread along trade routes as far east as China, south into India and as far west as Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean basin. Not surprisingly, because the leathery skin makes the fruit well-adapted for long transport, it made its way into North America via the early Spanish explorers as they visited southeastern shores of Georgia and Florida in the 16th century.
The Romans called the fruit Punica because they associated it with the Phoenicians who controlled many of the coastal trade centers of the Mediterranean region. The English word “pomegranate” is from Latin and translates as “apple grain,” a reference to the color and shape of the fruit and its seediness. In French the fruit is called “grenade”, a term borrowed in the early 18th century to describe the ordnance that has killed and maimed so many over several centuries. In German it is “grenadine,” again a reference to the seeds of the fruit and the English name of the syrup made from pressing the fruit.
Pomegranates have never been of much importance in the American diet. But that all changed around the year 2000, when a couple of research papers observed the antioxidant health benefits derived from drinking pomegranate juice. Claims of lowering bad cholesterol and blood pressure and possibly warding off cancer, all by drinking the pressed juice of this ancient plant, have propelled the juice into the consciousness of health conscious Americans.
Pomegranates are hardy in the southern half of Arkansas and are occasionally met with in the northern part of the state, if planted with a southern exposure next to the house. They are well-suited to high summer temperatures and dry conditions, so good drainage is a must in high-rainfall areas. Mostly, in our climate at least, the plant is grown for its showy flowers and long history, not for fruit production.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Retired Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - December 9, 2011
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.