Pomegranate history and legends
Some people believe that the pomegranate was the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. It is native to the region where the Garden was thought to be located and has a long history with humans as food, medicine, legends and lore. The pomegranate is also associated with fertility in many cultures. The myth that is most well-known is the one about Persephone. The Greek god of the underworld, Hades, kidnapped her and carried her to his dark realm. Her mother, Demeter, searched the earth over for her and ultimately discovered she had been abducted to the underworld. Accounts vary, however it was determined that she could return to the world if she had not eaten anything while she was below. Some say she ate four pomegranate seeds and others say six. The myth explains how the seasons started, because Persephone was able to join her mother in the world, however she had to return to the underworld for same number of months as the pomegranate seeds she'd eaten. This justifies why things wither and die in the winter months and are born again each spring.
Pomegranates grow on large shrubs or small trees, depending on your perspective and how they are pruned. The majority never reach thirty feet and the average mature height is between fifteen and twenty, unless pruned for a smaller plant. Most pomegranate shrubs are sensitive to freezing temperatures. They do need a period of dormancy, however a chill period like apples require isn't necessary. There are a few cultivars that can withstand freezing temperatures, however the one I attempted to grow in west Kentucky didn't survive. It may have been my inexperience with the genus and I am considering trying again at some point. I do love pomegranates. The plants don't ask for much. They are happy in just about any soil, as long as it is well-drained, even alkaline. They require full sun for at least eight hours each day to produce fruit and it is better if they receive even more. The plants are heat loving and drought tolerant once they are established. They even give us gorgeous red flowers and beautiful golden fall foliage as well. Another reason that pomegranates do best in the south is because they have a long ripening period, some taking over seven months to mature. For those in marginal areas, plan on keeping your pomegranate in a container. For winter protection you can even lay a shrub down on the ground and cover it with a heavy mulch for the winter. Either way, pomegranates fruit on new wood, so cutting them back in early winter and giving them protection will be easy on the plant when it leafs out in the spring. Once the fruit sets, regular water as the fruit matures will result in a better harvest. While the plants are drought tolerant, that is simply for survival and as with any juicy fruit, the harvest will be better if regular moisture is available. Just remember if the fruits are close to ripening and heavy rain is forecast, go ahead and harvest them. Just like tomatoes that receive too much moisture all at once, pomegranates will split.
Pomegranate nutrition and medicinal benefits
Pomegranates have been part of the herbal pharmacy for thousands of years. The fruits contain over 100 phytochemicals and three times more antioxidants than either red wine or green tea. One pomegranate contains about 40% of a day's Vitamin C as well. Pomegranates have been used as part of the herbal pharmacy to treat arthritis, high blood pressure, Crohn's disease and there are even studies that indicate pomegranates might be helpful in preventing Alzheimer's from progressing as quickly. Pomegranate juice is also antiviral and in these days and times, that, in itself is reason to add them to the menu. The tannins in the bark are good for curing leather, the rinds and flowers make excellent natural dye and ink can be made from the leaves. They are pretty much a perfect fruit and even the soft seeds that are in the little arils are a good source of fiber.
Cooking with pomegranates
Cooks use pomegranates in many different ways. Bake the airls in muffins or pancakes, add to a fudge recipe or simply enjoy them fresh tossed in a salad. The sweet, acidic juice makes for an excellent marinade and is especially nice in pork or chicken recipes. I made a great marinade for some pork chops this week and it was a tasty addition to the meal. I took the juice of a pomegranate (place the airls in a sieve and press to extract the juice, you'll have between ¼ and ½ cup), a couple tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of spicy brown mustard, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of tomato paste and a good splash of olive oil. Whisk this all together and place in a large zip-loc bag. Add the pork chops and squeeze to coat everything well. Let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours, take the pork chops out and cook as desired. I just used my grill pan, however, you can bake them as well. I squeezed the excess marinade into a saucepan and added a little more pomegranate juice that I stirred a teaspoon full of cornstarch in. I cooked the sauce until it thickened and poured this over the meat, adding a few whole arils for garnish. It was a delicious main dish that I served with roasted vegetables and crusty home made rolls.
Opening a pomegranate
This is the season for pomegranates. Late fall and winter find them even in the most unlikely little grocery stores. Choose bright red fruits that are heavy for their size. I gently press and roll them on my countertop to loosen the airls. If you feel around the fruit, there are six distinct ridges and that's where you'll score it with your knife. Gently slice around the blossom end top with the knife and peel it off. Then take the knife and prize out the little center core. Once the core is out, hold the fruit over a bowl and pull open the pomegranate along the score lines. This might get messy, so don't wear anything that you don't want stained. Many of the airls should fall right out. You can easily pick and shake the others out. Store in the refrigerator until you use them. I usually wait until I am ready to use my pomegranate before I cut it because they last much longer inside the fruit. Enjoy these late season gems and don't worry about trying to grow them if you live too far north. They are quite popular during the winter, so pick a few up next time you are in the market.