The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is commonly planted in the Algarve as a hedge and is one of the few plants to have autumn colour.
It is a lovely sight to see the bright butter-yellow foliage studded with the shiny round red fruits. It also has a story to tell us about the ignorance of our time.
For the last 10 years, the biodiversity of pomegranates has collapsed dramatically. In garden centres in Portugal, only the Asseria variety is left. All around the Mediterranean, we are losing old and carefully selected varieties, and almost all the white sour varieties, which replaced vinegar or lemon juice, are now lost.
Yet this is a marvelous fruit. First, the tree is easy to prune into any shape you can imagine: hedges of dwarf pomegranates, high hedges, clouds, geometric forms, topiaries. The fruit has preventive effects on prostate and colon cancer, it is a stronger antioxidant than tea or red wine, neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory. It is the panacea of all non communicable diseases.
Decorative pomegranates chosen for their flowers are available from one or two nurseries and there are lovely apricot-coloured, double white and double red forms available.
The guilty party in diversity loss is a pretty variety named ‘Wonderful’. Born at the beginning of the 20th century in California, ‘Wonderful’ alternates little, has very consistent fruit that is bright red inside and out, the seed is not too hard, the fruit ripens simultaneously. Attractive and ideal for the juice industry and now being farmed in the Alentejo and the Algarve.
There is a twofold cause for the damaging loss of pomegranate biodiversity.
Firstly, we have kept only two uses: the juice industry and the consumption of fresh arils.
Secondly, the pomegranate is native to a geographical zone that has become closed or inaccessible. It is now impossible to get cuttings from Iran and Afghanistan (in antiquity, Kabul was considered the best pomegranate orchard in the world).
There are very few people collecting and preserving these rarities. The collection of the Algarve DRAP (Frutalg programme) in Tavira gathered by Eng.º António Marreiros is an exemplary work.
In common with our oldest domesticated plants – grape vines, fig trees, olive trees – pomegranates are reproduced by cuttings. Pomegranates from seed remain in an adolescent stage for a long time. If you work from cuttings in summer for example, plant them the Chinese way, horizontal in the ground with just one bud sticking out.
There is no need to go far to find amazing pomegranates. Here in Portugal, at the former Pousada Vale do Gaio, where it is so nice to eat by the water, be sure and take cuttings from the pomegranates on the left when you arrive. These pomegranates have fruit that stays on the tree until March.
In Nisa, José Travassos Valdez has four varieties of black Portuguese pomegranates, surprisingly outside of Iran. Here, even the cultivar ‘Dona Ana’ has remarkable energy, hardly loses its leaves in winter and is an excellent rootstock.
There are hundreds of varieties of pomegranates, depending on what they are used for and depending on the climate. This beautiful fruit and this easy-to-grow tree speak to us of 6,000 years of horticultural expertise. We may think of all those things when we have the wisdom to plant one and now is the ideal time – we should all run out and plant pomegranates right away.
- Pépinières Baud http://www.fig-baud.com/grenadiers.html who has the dwarf varieties for hedges.
- Pépinière Filippi, the dry garden nursery of Olivier Filippi in southwest France, lists the species and nine named varieties in their catalogue – consult www.jardin-sec.com and look up Punica granatum ‘Legrelliae’ for a small tree with gorgeous double apricot flowers with white edges.
Members of The Mediterranean Gardening Association Portugal