Plant of the Month: September

 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.

Red sedum in Cambridge University Botamic Garden at the autumn equinox.

Red sedum in Cambridge University Botamic Garden at the autumn equinox.

Rudbeckia fulgida.

Rudbeckia fulgida.

Colchicum

Colchicum

Cyclamen

Cyclamen.

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 …’.

Ripening fruit.

Ripening fruit.

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.

The tower and cathedral of Sta Maria Assunta on Torcello: the tower is at last almost free of its corset of scaffolding.

The tower and cathedral of Sta Maria Assunta on Torcello: the tower is at last almost free of its corset of scaffolding.

Botanically, the pomegranate is a shrub or small tree, Punica granatum.

Pomegranate, by Redouté, 1809.

Pomegranate, by Redouté, 1809.

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.

Lagerstromeria indica.

Lagerstromeria indica.

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).

Carved pomegranate in Granada.

Carved pomegranate in Granada.

‘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.

Pomegranate flowers.

Pomegranate flowers.

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.

The pomegranate butterfly, a pest.

The pomegranate butterfly, a pest.

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.

Greek terracotta pomegranate, 5th century BCE.

Greek terracotta pomegranate, 5th century BCE.

A stylised pomegranate is a repeated motif in sculpture, tiles and jewellery all around the Mediterranean, and much further afield.

Detail of the Hinton St Mary Christian mosaic from Dorset, now in the British Museum: Christ flanked by two pomegranates.

Detail of the Hinton St Mary Christian mosaic from Dorset, now in the British Museum: Christ flanked by two pomegranates.

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).

A chapiter from the Doge's Palace, Venice: kings, but no pomegranates, alas!

A chapiter from the Doge’s Palace, Venice: kings, but no pomegranates, alas!

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.

Botticelli, the 'Madonna of the Pomegranates'. (Credit: Uffizi Museum, Florence.)

Botticelli, the ‘Madonna of the Pomegranates’. (Credit: Uffizi Museum, Florence.)

D.G. Rossetti, 'Proserpina'. (Credit: Tate Britain.)

D.G. Rossetti, ‘Proserpina’. (Credit: Tate Britain.)

In these two medieval manuscript images, the pomegranate’s chief enemy appears to be the jay:

A lady tries to save the crop from predatory wildlife. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Pomegranate Tree. Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644 der Osesterreichischen Nationalbibliothek Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck-u Verlagsanstalt, 1967. Drawing Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A woman tries to save the crop from predatory wildlife.
(Credit: Wellcome Library, London.)

A man does not have to contend with rabbits. (Credit: Wellcome Library, London.)

A man does not have to contend with ravening rabbits.
(Credit: Wellcome Library, London.)

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.

Pomegranate tree in the Botanic Garden, Cambridge.

Pomegranate tree in the Botanic Garden, Cambridge.

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.

Caroline

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Botany, Cambridge, Gardens, History, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Plant of the Month: September

  1. Pingback: St Helena | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Pingback: Object of the Month: October | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  3. Pingback: The Mystery of Sant’ Eufemia | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  4. Pingback: Admiral Russell’s Frame | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  5. Pingback: Plant of the Month: June 2017 | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s