Like many of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fruits, pomegranates (Punica granatum) grow well in South East Queensland. However, they do not seem to enjoy very great popularity as a fruit. Perhaps this is because people don’t like the fuss involved in extracting the seeds, or don’t realise what can be done with the fruits, which can be made into jam, wine or the sweet syrup called grenadine. They may have forgotten what a delightful treat it is for small children to sit down with a large, red, juicy pomegranate and carefully extract the sweet, flesh-covered seeds, and then be allowed to spit the seeds out over the veranda rails.
I think it is time for a renaissance of the pomegranate, especially as there are now some superb cultivars available, with very large fruit - and even a seedless variety. They have many benefits - being hardy, attractive, manageable bushes or small trees that tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, as well as wind, heat, cold and drought. Being ‘self-fruitful’, they can pollinate themselves. They have dense green foliage in all conditions (there are also variegated types), although in our climate, they are semi-deciduous. The distinctive flaming orange/red flowers are produced profusely in spring in our region. They can be grown as a hedge if planted about 2m apart.
I have taken an interest in pomegranates after I was given some cuttings of a cultivar described as having large, sweet fruit. These came from a woman whose family come from Dubrovnik in Croatia, and had brought the original tree to Australia many decades ago. Pomegranates grow well in that region and around Italy, where they are much more appreciated as a fruit than here in Australia.
I found that the cuttings that I was given (about pencil thickness) struck very easily. The cuttings are best started in winter. All I did was strip most of the leaves, shave the cambium layer of bark from the bottom 40mm or so of the cutting, dip the base in rooting powder, and plant in good potting soil, with plastic bags over the tops of the pots to retain moisture. The cuttings produced new leaves within 2 weeks, and had good root systems in another 3 – 4 weeks. A year later, I have sturdy trees in the ground that are now up to one metre in height, and growing vigorously. However, we will have to wait up to three more years to see how the fruit turn out, as the usual age for fruiting with pomegranates is 3 – 5 years.
The pomegranate needs full sun and a long hot summer for good fruiting. However, they can also withstand low temperatures of -9° to -12°C and are very drought-tolerant (Tous and Ferguson 1996). Because they are adapted to dry summers, I think it is good idea to plant them in well-drained areas in our subtropical climate. A site with a slight slope would be ideal. Although there should be adequate rainfall in South East Queensland for fully established pomegranate trees, we have been having some very dry summers lately. In this situation, additional watering to maintain soil moisture in late summer and early autumn will help reduce the chance of the fruit splitting.
Another good thing about pomegranates is that they don’t need much care in the way of pruning. All you really need to do is some minimal pruning, such as removing any suckers at the base of the plant. Fruit is borne on the spurs which arise from 2 - 3 year old wood, so any pruning should retain sufficient of this older wood on the tree. They do have a tendency to produce suckers from the roots. You can also prune pomegranates to a particular desired shape. For a tree-shape, only allow one trunk to develop. If you are concentrating on fruit development rather than ornamental values, it is a good idea to cut the plant off at 50cm when planting out, and then allow three to five shoots that arise from the stem to develop into a framework (NSW Department of Agriculture, 1983). Alternatively, you can allow them to become bushy, or shape them into a hedge. A light annual pruning will encourage good quality fruit. According to Sheets, Du Bois and Williamson, pomegranates are adapted to many soil types from pure sand to heavy clay, but produce fruit the best when grown on deep, heavy, moist loams with a pH in the range of 5.5-7.0. Fertilise in early spring and early summer. It’s best not to fertilise too close to fruit maturity (they ripen throughout autumn in South East Queensland)
There are now several varieties to choose from. ‘Wonderful’ has a very red fleshed, sweet fruit. It was developed in California and is available in Queensland. ‘Elcite’ is a variety that we have growing, which has produced well since its third year. Another that is readily available locally is ‘Galusha Rosavaya’. All these are currently in stock at Daley’s Nursery (www.daleysfruit.com.au). There is a nursery in Western Australia called ‘Fixed Stars, that specialises only in pomegranates – and will ship cuttings around Australia during June to August. They have at least a dozen different varieties, including a seedless one called ‘Jallore Seedless’(www.fixedstars.com.au).
Don’t be discouraged if your pomegranates drop their fruits in the first year or two. This is common in the first few years. However, it is worth noting that fruit drop is aggravated by over-fertilization or excess irrigation, both of which favour vegetative growth (Sheets, Du Bois and Williamson). When you do get fruit, it is best picked just before the fruit splits. Note that they do continue to sweeten off the tree. If dried out in sun, the shell becomes quite hard, and as long as the fruit has no damage on the skin, they will keep like this for up to 4 months.
Italians call the pomegranate ‘miela granata’ which means ‘grainy apple’. This is because of the multiple small segments contained in the fruit. These ‘grains’, which have red, pink or scarlet flesh surrounding a small seed, is technically called an ‘aril’. Because of the very high juice content (76% to 85% of the arils), it is well worth juicing. However, you do need to separate the arils from the rind before juicing, otherwise the juice will have a high tannin content, and be unpalatable. Interestingly, for commercial production, the whole fruit is juiced, and then the tannins are removed with the addition of gelatine. To make grenadine, add sugar in equal parts by volume to the juice, leave for two days, then bring to the boil, simmer five minutes, and bottle it hot in sterile bottles (Wilson).
Overall the pomegranate is versatile, attractive, tasty, and can adapt easily to the range of conditions in South East Queensland. The fruit is great fun to eat fresh from the tree, and is a good conversation starter for guests – most of whom will remember eating pomegranates in their childhood.
References: NSW Department of Agriculture, 1983. Pomegranate Growing, AgFacts H3 1.42.
Sheets, M.D., Du Bois M.L., Williamson, J.G., 2004. The Pomegranate, Fact Sheet HS-44, Horticultural Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.
Wilson, P. The Pomegranate: More than a Multitude of Pips, Grassroots 19.