By Robin Rivet.
Revered for their sweet-tart taste, healthful anti-oxidants, and characteristic crimson juice, the allure of a store-bought pomegranate is almost always “wonderful”—at least until you shuck out $5.00 for one fruit.
Wonderful’ is the most popular commercial cultivar in California. And no wonder. Punica granatum ‘Wonderful’ is prolific, ornamental, disease free, and almost a drought-proof orchard tree. It produces well in most San Diego gardens (and is easily propagated from cuttings) and its large, red, thick-skinned fruits burst open when cool weather arrives in late fall with super-juicy arils and a sub-acid, sweet/sour cherry-like flavor. However, depending on environmental conditions, they can be as tart as a cranberry.
Delicious as ‘Wonderful’ is, other California cultivars, as well as many from around the world— including from Turkmenistan, Iran, and India—vie for unpredictable taste preferences. Some sport higher acidity, variable seed hardness, or different ripening times. Outer skin tones vary a lot, but are not linked to juice color. One cultivar, ‘Pink Satin’ (aka ‘Pink Ice’), has soft pink arils lacking a sour component and with a taste reminiscent of watermelon. And, for finicky eaters, those juicy drips won’t stain your shirt. It also goes by the name ‘Sin Pepe’, which means “without seeds” in Spanish. This is a desirable trait if you dislike spitting out the hard seeds common to the sour types (although these often make better wine). If tartness is, however, your preference, the firmer-seeded cultivars like ‘Purple Heart’ fare better in cooking applications, while ‘Desertnyi’ has a citrus-like taste and appearance, and the Indian ‘Ganesh’ is evergreen.
So what’s not to like? One of the few challenges with pomegranate cultivation is andromonoecious flowering, characterized by individual plants having fertile hermaphroditic flowers with both well-formed male and female parts, as well as male (“andros”) flowers that only produce pollen and do not set fruit. Unfortunately, most trees produce ample infertile males, teasing growers who realize that they lost a good thing when the abundant unfruitful andros drop off and potential fruit set and yield is decreased. If you look closely at pomegranate flowers, you can spot the difference between the female flower, which has an hourglass shape near the stem end, and the male flower, which originates pointed and narrow.
Today, pomegranates flourish in our Mediterranean climate, and although the etymology of the word pomegranate includes “pome,” which implies the family of apples and pears, they are totally unrelated. Pomegranates are closer to crape myrtles in lineage, and originated thousands of years ago in what is today Iran.
So, if anticipation of the “wonderful” taste of this globally and historically popular fruit is enough to tempt you, you’re not alone. In fact, Eden’s “apple” suggests pomegranates were actually the fruit of biblical legend.
Member Robin Rivet is an ISA Certified Arborist, UC Master Gardener, and City of La Mesa Environmental Commissioner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.