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It’s Prime Time for Pomegranates

This ancient fruit fares well in desert climates—and invigorates seasonal salads with unexpected flavor.

By John Roark

For thousands of years, the pomegranate (Punica granatum) has played an important role in numerous cultures and civilizations as both a food source and an enduring symbol. Some scholars have posited that this juicy red orb—rather than the apple—was the catalyst that led Adam and Eve to look for alternate real estate after an ill-advised snack. For the ancient Egyptians, the pomegranate represented prosperity and ambition. In Greek mythology, the fruit was said to have been created from the blood of Adonis.

Originating in the region stretching from modern day Iran to northern India and cultivated in Central Asia and throughout the Mediterranean, the pomegranate made its way to Arizona and California with Spanish missionaries in the late 16th century, and even became a common motif in Navajo jewelry, including squash blossom necklaces.

The plant grows naturally in shrub form with a structure similar to the oleander but can be trained to take the shape of a tree. They are self-fruitful, meaning a second tree is not necessary for pollination. Thanks to its arid ancestry, the pomegranate is a natural fit for Valley gardens and an ornamental alternative that homeowners might overlook. “When it comes to planting fruit here, a lot of gardeners default to citrus,” says local grower Brandon Owens. “They are surprised that pomegranates do so well here, but our climate is perfect for them.” His wife and business partner, Alyssa, adds, “They’re easy to grow; in many cases, you can harvest within the first year. The fruit is packed with antioxidants and vitamins, and the trees have beautiful flowers.”

Here, the Owens share their knowledge and passion for this leathery-husked fruit.

PLANTING
  • Pomegranate plants grow quickly, generally to a height and width of approximately 10 feet, so start small. Dwarf varieties are also available. At your local nursery, look for plants with healthy, glossy leaves.
  • The best time to plant is in springtime when milder temperatures are less stressful for new transplants. Dig a hole that is twice as wide and as deep as the pot that the plant came in.
  • Keep root systems at ground level with the top of the root structure visible above the soil.
  • Pomegranates love the heat and the sun; you won’t see much fruit production from a plant that doesn’t get enough light. A prime growing location is a
    well-drained spot that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
WATERING
  • While pomegranate plants are drought-tolerant, keep it well-watered during the first year after planting to encourage root growth. When temperatures are above 100 degrees, water deeply every other day. Plants will talk to us. When the leaves start to droop, it’s time to give the plant a nice long drink.
  • Once the plant is established, consistent irrigation every 10 to 14 days will help prevent fruit from splitting on the tree, which can invite pests. Soil should be damp at a depth of 2 to 3 feet.
FERTILIZING
  • During the first year, feed once a month during the growing season (February through November), applying half the recommended amount of organic plant food, such as fish emulsion, seaweed extract, worm castings or bat guano. As the plant matures, it won’t need as much attention. After 12 months, fertilize quarterly.
MAINTENANCE
  • The Punica granatum is deciduous, meaning it will shed its leaves after the first frost, storing energy during the colder months. You will see a growth spurt in the spring. As a rule, prune in the winter for shape; prune in the summer for size.
  • Pomegranates tend to send out sucker shoots from the base of the plant. Removing these will encourage a well-framed plant with a stronger structure.
PESTS
  • The Western leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus clypealis) is the most prevalent threat to mature pomegranate fruit. While nymphs feed on the plant’s juices, adult bugs pierce small holes in the husk of the fruits in search of the seeds inside. These pests are easy to control, but you must be vigilant. Spray your fruit trees every evening with water, and brush any remaining bugs into a bucket of soapy water.
  • Crescent-shaped holes in the leaves of your tree are caused by leafcutter bees (Megachillidae). These beneficial pollinators will not harm your plant or
    its fruit.
  • Remove any fruit that has fallen to the ground or that has cracked open on the branch, both of which are like an engraved invitation for pests.
HARVESTING
  • Pomegranate fruit is typically in season from early October through late December. Don’t use color as a guide for ripeness. Mature fruit should feel firm but have a little give, similar to a perfectly ripe avocado. Start by cutting one open to see how it looks and tastes. If it is still immature, wait one week and try again. Produce will keep for as long as seven months in your refrigerator and become juicier and more flavorful as they age.
  • To easily remove the seeds from the rind, halve the fruit from top to bottom, hold the cut side down over a bowl and gently rap against the exterior with the back of a spoon.

PICK A POM

There are more than 500 varieties of pomegranate plants, with fruit ranging in size from a lemon to a grapefruit and flavors spanning the spectrum from tart to tangy to sweet. The following cultivars have been shown to fare well here in the Valley.

WONDERFUL
(Punica granatum ‘Wonderful’)
Baseball-sized, deep purple-red fruit; considered the best fruiting variety for
the Valley.

AMBROSIA
(Punica granatum ‘Ambrosia’)
Large pale pink-skinned fruits that are up to three times larger than the Wonderful; intense flavor perfect for juicing

PINK SATIN
(Punica granatum ‘Pink Satin’)
Light pink in color; soft seeds have a lightly sugary, refreshing taste.   

PARFIANCA
(Punica granatum ‘Parfianca’)
Deep ruby red fruit widely regarded as the most delicious variety

GRANADA
(Punica granatum ‘Granada’)
Burgundy-colored inside and out;
arils have a rich, delicious flavor


Cocoa Pomegranate Vinaigrette

By Christina Barrueta | Photography by Debby Wolvos

Accented with cocoa and a pinch of cayenne powder, this tangy dressing is a distinctive complement for salads and roasted vegetables.

One of autumn’s most anticipated  harvests, pomegranates are prized by home cooks and professional chefs alike. The seeds (or arils) are a natural addition to seasonally driven cuisine and can be substituted in any number of dishes commonly accented with citrus and other fruit. “We use pomegranates a lot,” says Tandy Peterson, chef de cuisine at Mowry & Cotton. “The seeds add texture to pork belly or sashimi, which are soft and buttery. They bring a citrus element to savory menu items, and we also use them as a sweet component in desserts.”

For this recipe, Peterson amplifies the flavor by incorporating pomegranates in two ways: juiced and as molasses (pomegranate juice reduced to a thick syrup). Commonly used in Persian and Middle Eastern cuisine, pomegranate molasses is a less familiar pantry staple in the U.S. “You can buy it in a regular grocery store, but I don’t think many people have tried it before,” says Peterson “It has an amazing flavor.”

The secret ingredient of her inventive vinaigrette is cocoa. “I often think of strawberries and pomegranates as interchangeable in the sense that they both have a delicate sweetness with a touch of acidity,” she explains. “My mind then went straight to strawberries and chocolate, and I thought, what if I used cocoa? That in turn led me to add a pinch of cayenne since a lot of people like their chocolate with a dash of heat. I wanted to create something that people could make at home but also something that they could talk about. It’s so tasty, I’m going to put it on our lunch menu.”

Peterson suggests tossing this delicious dressing with a salad of mixed greens, charred oranges, goat cheese, spicy pecans and fresh pomegranate seeds, but she notes that it’s so versatile that you may want to add to your everyday repertoire. Try it on spinach salad, bitter greens, sliced tomatoes or grilled vegetables. “I think it would be really good on beets, or reduced to a glaze and tossed with roasted carrots,” she says. Refrigerate any unused dressing for up to one week; if prepared without shallots, it will last for a month.

Chef de cuisine Tandy Peterson

Cocoa Pomegranate Vinaigrette

1 teaspoon minced shallots

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

3 tablespoons pomegranate juice

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon cocoa powder

1 pinch cayenne powder

1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a Mason jar. Cap jar tightly and shake vigorously until ingredients are emulsified. Peterson recommends allowing the dressing to sit for an hour to let the flavors meld. Shake before serving.

Yields 1.5 cups

Pomegranate trees produce showy flowers that attract hummingbirds, bees and other beneficial pollinators.

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