Beautiful Delicious Pomegranates
Photo by Michael Chua of Chopping Board Studio www.choppingboardstudio.com
Pomegranates have been cultivated as a common backyard crop for decades in the South, but over the past few years, they have experienced a surge in popularity due to the widely publicized health benefits associated with their juice. Touted for its antioxidant qualities as well as its potential to reduce high blood pressure and heart disease, the fruit is now widely available in a variety of forms, including tea and juice blends, nut mixes and countless other food and non-food items.
In addition to producing delicious edible fruit, pomegranate bushes or trees are equally desirable as an ornamental plant. These naturally dense, deciduous, multi-stemmed shrubs typically grow to heights of 10 to 12 feet with nearly the same spread. The branches tend to be slender and thorny, while the leaves are glossy, dark green and somewhat leathery. They turn yellow in the fall and may linger on the plant until early winter. Trees sucker profusely from the base if not removed routinely.
Domestication of the pomegranate plant can be traced back to Central Asia and Persia nearly 4,000 years ago. From there they spread east and west through hot, arid regions of India, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coast, with Spanish settlers first introducing the fruit to North America, including missions on the Georgia coast in the 16th century.
Pomegranates are a long-lived plant, bearing fruit for decades. They are often found growing near old home sites and plantations, especially in the midlands and coastal plain areas of both Georgia and South Carolina. They grow and flower well in both states, but tend to fruit poorly in our humid climate as compared to the warm, arid regions to which they are better adapted.
Pomegranates flower sporadically the first year after planting and typically begin to bear fruit two to three years after planting. Although considered to be long-lived plants (some in Europe are more than 200 years old), their vigor will decline after about 15 years.
Aside from their fruit, pomegranates are prized by many gardeners for their beautiful long lasting blooms—from late May until fall. Flowers are borne on the ends of branches with one to five flowers in a cluster, one to two inches wide, with five to seven crepe paper-like petals emerging from a thick, fleshy vase or urn-shaped calyx. Colors range from scarlet-red to orange, yellow, white or variegated, in single or double blooms, depending on the cultivar, and are most attractive to hummingbirds. Double flowers resemble that of carnations, but these cultivars generally produce few, if any, fruit.
Fruit is globe shaped, two to three inches in diameter (sometimes up to five) and typically ripens from green to several shades of red from late August to late October. The edible portion of the fruit, called an aril, is comprised of hundreds of seeds surrounded by juicy pigments, each contained within a seed coat. Seeds may be either soft or hard, depending on the cultivar. The juice with the aril varies from light pink to dark red, but can also appear yellow or clear in some varieties. It ranges in taste from very acidic to very sweet.
Pomegranates are well-suited for use as a shrub border and make a great backdrop for small shrubs and perennials. The compact forms also do quite well in large containers.
Pomegranates are easy to grow and require little maintenance once established. They require at least six hours of direct sunlight a day in order to ensure good fruit color and productivity. They will grow in partial shade, but will only flower and fruit sporadically.
They are adaptable to most Augusta soils, though perform best in a deep loamy soil. Plants are tolerant of moderately acid soils but prefer a pH of 5.5 to 7.2. Though pomegranates can tolerate short periods of standing water, they prefer well-drained soil. Like most other shrubs, they benefit from a two- to three-inch layer of mulch. Once established, they are relatively drought tolerant and require minimal fertilization if fruit production is not a consideration. If fruit production is your goal, start out with one cup of 10-10-10 the first year and continue with an additional cup for each year of age, until you reach the 12-cup maximum, splitting the amount into three separate applications.
Pomegranate shrubs are cold hardy to zones 8 to 10 and should survive with little trouble in Augusta, with the danger point at about 10 degrees. If in the rare event they are killed to the ground, established plants usually come back from the crown. Planting in a protected location should help prevent cold injury.
Pomegranates flower on new wood so prune before new growth begins in the spring. Pruning should be minimal, limited to periodic removal of suckers and dead wood. Fruit is produced on short spurs found on two- to three-year-old stems. Light annual pruning will encourage new fruiting spurs to develop, but heavy pruning will reduce fruiting.
Pomegranates are relatively trouble free when proper conditions are provided. Leaf and fruit spots are common in the Augusta area due to high humidity, but don’t require treatment. The most common problem with pomegranates is their failure to set fruit. Inadequate sunlight and lack of pollination are the two most common reasons so, even though they are considered to be self-fruiting, you may want to plant two or more shrubs for cross-pollination and increased fruit production.
Pomegranates may be propagated from seed but will not come true to variety. Both hardwood and softwood cuttings root easily. To root hardwood cuttings, take pencil diameter cuttings 8 to 10 inches long during winter from the previous season’s growth. Treat with a rooting hormone and insert half their length in a good well- drained rooting medium. Rooted cuttings can be transplanted the following year.
Numerous pomegranate cultivars exist, but many are hard to find in the nursery trade. The most common is Wonderful and it is the standard by which others are judged. Reaching eight to 12 feet at maturity, it produces red flowers followed by extra large red fruit that ripens in September.
Cultivars Greater Than Six Feet Tall
• Double Red. Features deep red flowers.
• Early Wonderful. Similar to Wonderful
but ripens two weeks later.
• Flavescens. Produces yellow flowers.
• Granada. Produces darker red, less tart
fruit than Wonderful and ripens one
month earlier. This may be the hardiest
flowering and fruiting cultivar.
• Eight Ball. Produces nearly black fruit.
Compact Cultivars Less Than Six Feet Tall
• State Fair. Grows about five feet tall
and produces many dwarf fruits
(less than two inches in diameter).
This selection is very cold hardy and
• Nana. The smallest dwarf variety, it
grows two to three feet tall with
red-orange, single flowers followed by
small fruit. More cold hardy than
others of the dwarf species.
With their low maintenance, easy to cultivate qualities, pomegranates are an excellent choice for the Southern garden. Whether they bear fruit or not, their lovely, long-lasting blooms are sure to be some of the most prized in your landscape.