Master Gardener: Pomegranates, the Ancient Snack

February 9—Pomegranates are an exotic fruit that dates back to ancient times. In Persia they were used as a carpet dye and in India they were considered a symbol of fertility, probably because the fruit is filled with hundreds of small fruits inside the membrane. In fact, the scientific name, Punica granatum, translates to “seeded apple”, the name given to the fruit in the Middle Ages. Spanish settlers and missionaries brought pomegranates to California.

Pomegranates make an excellent ornamental landscape tree in the San Joaquin Valley. They are very heat tolerant and can survive in alkaline soils which would kill many plants. They have many uses, such as hedges, shade trees, fruit trees, potted plants, and even bonsai. There are many cultivars to choose from, whether you need them for a container or a full-sized tree. What if you don’t want to deal with fruit? They have that covered too. There are beautiful pomegranates with double flowers that do not fruit.

Standard pomegranates form round deciduous shrubs or multi-branched trees up to 20 feet tall. While the proven varieties are ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Granada’, there are now many new varieties for sale that are marketed as ‘seedless’ or ‘soft-seeded’. Although they still have seeds, they are very soft and edible. The new varieties should be available at your favorite nursery. If not, ask them to order them for you. The University of California for Agriculture and Natural Resources has a pomegranate resource page, with a list of suggested varieties for the backyard orchard here: https://homeorchard.ucanr.edu/Fruits_&_Nuts/Pomegranate/

Dwarf pomegranates make excellent container plants and can be used as bonsai trees. There are several varieties, such as ‘Chico’, which are unsuccessful. ‘Nana’ and ‘Purple Sunset’ will bear small fruits that can be used in many arts and crafts projects.

Non-fruiting pomegranate varieties are ‘California Sunset’ with double coral flowers, ‘Toyosho’ with double peach flowers, and ‘Noshi Shibari’ with double white flowers. These are all very showy, and because they don’t set fruit, the flowering time is much longer. I have California Sunset, and I must add that the flowers are huge and the hummingbirds love it.

Plant pomegranates in the warmest, sunniest location for the best, sweetest fruit, but they will also survive partial shade. New trees should be cut to a foot tall when they are about two feet tall. From this point, allow 4-5 shoots to develop, which should be evenly distributed around the short trunk to keep the tree well balanced. Since the fruits are only borne at the tips of new shoots, it is recommended to shorten the branches every year for the first 3 years. This will encourage the maximum number of new growth from all sides and help develop a strong framed tree. After the third year, only suckers and dead branches are removed.

New trees need enough water to establish themselves. Regular watering promotes fruit development and reduces thorns. Mature trees only need to be watered once every 2-3 weeks during the summer, and if it rains in the winter, there is no need to water at all during the winter. The flowers develop on new shoots each spring and the fruits ripen in the fall.

Pomegranates have the usual problems with aphids, whiteflies and mealy bugs; however, lady beetles and predatory lacewings also lay their eggs on the leaves, helping to control these pests. A moth called the omnivorous leaf roller may be a pest in our area. The larvae feed on the crust, causing damage. After entering the fruit, they feed on the seeds until pupation. Weed control can reduce the insect population, and spraying with Bacillus thuringiensis (a biological pesticide that targets worms) also helps. Fortunately, there is usually enough fruit for both the home gardener and the moth to enjoy.

Pomegranate is self pollinated as well as insect pollinated. Cross-pollination increases fruit set, so encourage any birds, bees and butterflies that are attracted to these bright scarlet flowers by not spraying pesticides unless absolutely necessary.

So this is it. Large ornamental small trees that like the sun and the heat, have scarlet flowers to attract birds in summer, and autumn colors and fruits in addition.

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