Decisions, decisions: the autumn equinox is producing such wonderful sights that I’m spoiled for choice for September’s plant of the month. Sedums, rudbeckias, penstemons, cyclamen, colchicums, and of course Michaelmas daisies – which I’m alarmed to see are undergoing a taxonomic revision … However, still not willing to slough off the memories of Italy, I’m going for the pomegranate.
I first consciously saw a pomegranate tree in Ravenna a few years ago. (I may have seen them much earlier in Greece, but not recognised them for what they were.) The ripening fruits shine and glow on the trees as they change from pale, lemony brown to blushing pink to deep rose colour, but the glow fades when they are picked (illustrating Lady Bracknell’s immortal phrase, ‘Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone’). They always remind me of John Betjeman’s poem, ‘Autumn 1964’: ‘Red apples hang like globes of light …’.
Not that pomegranates are particularly delicate: the leathery case which helps preserve the seeds when the fruit falls from the tree, and the complex internal membranes which enclose them, make extracting the bright red jewels a time-consuming and messy, though enjoyable, activity. (There are various YouTube videos which shows a non-messy procedure, but I value the escaping juice: see below.) The ‘natural’ season for pomegranates in the northern hemisphere is just beginning – it lasts from September to February – and a couple of weeks ago, the pomegranate trees on Torcello were looking very promising.
Botanically, the pomegranate is a shrub or small tree, Punica granatum.
Formerly in a family of its own, Punicaceae, it is now classed among the Lythraceae, or loosestrifes, where its most obvious relative is the Lagerstroemia or crepe myrtle, named by Linnaeus after his friend, the Swedish East India merchant Magnus von Lagerström, who arranged for new plants to be shipped to him.
Linnaeus also gave the pomegranate its taxonomical name, Punica meaning ‘of Carthage’, though the plant is believed to have originated in an area ranging from Iran to northern India.
The word ‘pomegranate’ itself is from medieval Latin: pomum granatum = seeded apple. This gets you to French ‘pomme-grenade’, and English ‘apple of Grenada’, which by false etymology associated the plant with Granada in Spain (though not unreasonably, as they grow there, and the fruit is the symbol of the city).
‘Grenadine’ is the French for pomegranate juice (something it took me years of visits to French supermarkets to realise); and, more grimly, the hand grenade is so called because its shaped recalled the pomegranate to the French soldiers who had to wield it. And the precious stone garnet is named from its resemblance to the colour of the seeds: grenat > garnet, by metathesis, as they used to say when I attended linguistics lectures.
The trees/shrubs thrive in a Mediterranean climate, can live as long as 200 years, and are frost hardy down to about –12 degrees C. They are widely grown across southern Europe, northern Africa and Asia, as well as in California. They are pestered in India by a butterfly, Virachola isocrates, and in the USA by Leptoglossus zonatus, the leaf-footed bug. A dwarf variety, P. granatum var. nana, is grown for ornamental purposes, but the only other species known is P. protopunica, which is one of the many unique plants growing on the Yemeni island of Socotra in the India Ocean, which sounds an absolutely fascinating (if uncomfortable) place.
Historically, pomegranates, or artistic representations of them, go back a very long way. Carbonised seeds were found in Bronze Age strata in Jericho, and there are reports of (very dried) pomegranates in Egyptian tombs, and of more seeds at Bronze Age sites in Greece.
A stylised pomegranate is a repeated motif in sculpture, tiles and jewellery all around the Mediterranean, and much further afield.
In Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Hiram of Tyre: ‘… made the pillars, and two rows round about the one network, to cover the chapiters [capitals] that were upon the top, with pomegranates: and so did he for the other chapiter. And the chapiters that were upon the top of the pillars were of lily work in the porch, four cubits. An the chapiters upon the two pillars had pomegranates also above, over against the belly which was by the network; and the pomegranates were two hundred in rows round about upon the other chapiter.’ (1 Kings 7, 18–20).
They appear in paintings: most famously perhaps in Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ in the Uffizi, Florence, and in Rossetti’s (to me) rather less appealing ‘Proserpina’, but also in Chinese and Indian art.
In these two medieval manuscript images, the pomegranate’s chief enemy appears to be the jay:
At this year’s Venice Biennale, pomegranates played an important symbolic part in the Montenegro and Azerbaijan exhibits. They also have a role in that most baffling but never less than beautiful film by the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’.
And of course there is the mythology. The abducted Persephone (Proserpina to the Romans and Rossetti) was tricked into eating (only) four pomegranate seeds, but that was enough to tie her to the Underworld and Hades for four months of the year, during which her mother Demeter retreated into mourning, killing or suspending the growth of plants until her daughter was restored to the light the following spring. Are the golden apples of the Hesperides in fact pomegranates? It’s been argued that the apple in the Garden of Eden was…
More recently, pomegranates have had their role to play as one of the (possibly also mythical) superfoods: as in ‘Half a glass of pomegranate juice and three dates a day – but you really should eat the STONES, too’ will prevent a heart attack (Daily Mail, 18/5/15). (It does have a long history in Ayurvedic medicine, but don’t most plants of the subcontinent?) Scattering them on salad has also become a thing, but I just like eating the seeds straight. If you want my best recipe: peel the fruit over a bowl, so that any escaping juice is caught (and if necessary, crush a few seeds to create more). Pour into a champagne flute and top up with very cold prosecco. Repeat ad lib.
I’m beginning to wonder if I should try growing a dwarf variety in a pot; after all, I do get very small (though not very edible) olives from my little tree. The thing that gives me slight pause is that there is a pomegranate in Cambridge University Botanic Garden, but its first flowering this year has failed so far to produce any fruit, however tiny (though it has been a rotten summer). It is however starting to flower again: the orange-coral flowers are gorgeous, and as a link to our remotest past, it’s definitely a good companion for the olive.