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There’s a story for every seed the pomegranate contains. If Proserpine hadn’t broken the golden rule of the Underworld and tried the food, her mother Ceres, the fertility goddess, wouldn’t have taken to downing tools for part of each year and the Earth would never have known winter.
The food that Proserpine found irresistible was the pomegranate. In the Classical world, it was autumn’s cause as well as its most cherished product. Far from being a mournful fruit, it was a thing of celebration: Ceres’s pledge that normal service would be resumed after a few dark months.
Centuries earlier, Middle Eastern cultures had already planted the pomegranate in their arts and religions as a fertility emblem. It assured Moses the Promised Land would be as promised. It would become a Christian symbol in much the same spirit, although some Church fathers preferred to read suffering instead of fecundity into its sanguinary seeds.
The right word for their colour would be ‘garnet’, which came into English via a mildly dyslexic reading of Malum granatum, this tree’s Medieval Latin name. Like ‘pomegranate’ itself, it means ‘grain-filled apple’. Few plants have captured our imagination quite like Punica granatum. And now, they say it’s incredibly good for us, too. It’s certainly good in the garden.
Two or three decades ago, if you grew a pomegranate, it was almost certainly Punica granatum Nana, a dwarf variety ideal for containers and small enough to bring under cover in winter. These days, we can choose from a range of full-size cultivars. Unnamed, but often excellent, specimens are also arriving from the same Southern European sources as all those olive trees. Like the olives, imported trees now range in age from willowy whips to craggy-boled antiques. Since regaining its force in the last couple of years, the British winter has claimed gratifyingly few of these sun-worshippers from the Mediterranean and Near East.
Snow may split their trunks and frost may scorch their branches, but they usually regenerate. Pomegranates are tougher than we think. To attain burnished and bulging perfection, the fruit needs the kind of summer that seems to be beyond our means. That said, ripeness may come with autumnal damp followed by a chill: I’ve harvested small but sweet offerings late into November.
These are really no more than a bonus. It’s the pomegranate’s flowers-crêpe-petalled, rose-shaped, produced all summer long-that make it such an asset. As you’d expect from a plant that’s spawned more than 500 cultivars over at least 5,000 years, various colour forms are available. Those with double flowers include André le Roi (salmon and hollandaise), Legrelliae (carnation pink) and Multiplex (ivory to alabaster). But there’s no need for this lily-gilding: in shades of vermilion and scarlet, the blooms of typical Punica granatum are unbeatably brilliant. I’d simply go for a good ordinary tree sent over from Italy or Spain, or for the delightful miniature Nana.
Pomegranates need a loamy soil that contains stones, grit, rubble-anything to make it drain fast. A south-facing wall is ideal, or a sunny spot sheltered by buildings-a bed, for example, cut into a courtyard. Rarely more than 10ft tall, and easily trained, they’re perfect for confined quarters, although keeping them in tubs may commit you to wrapping them in winter or to carting them under cover. Apart from the readily movable Nana, it’s better to plant them out: insulated by the earth, their rootstocks should sprout even if cold has killed all above ground.
You can ensure their regene-ration by mulching deeply in late autumn. Until they’ve built up a woody base, wrap young plants with fleece to protect them from frost. Leafless, they look deceptively dead. I wait until growth is under way before pruning out any damage. I then thin and slightly shorten the remaining branches if the tree needs shaping, but this isn’t always desirable: a knotty haphazardness is yet another of the pome granate’s charms.
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