Alabama Gardener: Pomegranates
Pomegranates are marketed in grocery stores as “the power fruit,” and they’re listed as the key ingredient in many refreshing drinks. Despite their exotic look, a bulk of the pomegranates consumed nationwide are grown domestically. Health-conscious folks enjoy them for their juice-filled “seeds,” which are high in fiber and Vitamin C. Pomegranates are also packed with potassium, zinc and magnesium. While they do provide sufficient nutrients, pomegranates are also a perfect plant for Alabama gardeners who don’t have time for pruning. Cultivated for centuries and often referenced in the Bible, pomegranates are native to the Middle East. Today, they grow well in Alabama because of their tolerance to the state’s mild winters and hot summers. A pomegranate plant is a multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub with glossy, bright green leaves and very bright, deep red-orange flowers that open in spring. The flowers are followed by the fruit, which grow through the summer months and mature in late September or early October. The shrub drops leaves in winter except along the coast, where they may be semi-evergreen, especially during a mild winter. Plants are self-fruitful, so only one is needed for pollination.Easy to grow, pomegranate plants typically reach 8- to 12-feet tall, but they can be pruned lower for ease of reach. Because it fruits on new wood, you can tip-prune branches and cut away the old stems at the base every few years to encourage new growth. Keep the base thinned to five or six strong canes. Like other fruit trees, pomegranates need full sun and well-drained soil. They’re also known to tolerate some alkaline, even slightly salty soil, so gardeners near the coast shouldn’t exclude these trees from their yards. Give each pomegranate tree room to spread its arching branches – at least 6- 8-feet in diameter – plus enough clearance to reach the branches for harvest. It’s important to keep the newly planted shrubs well-watered; after a couple of years in the ground, pomegranate plants are very drought tolerant, which is no surprise given where they are native. Older trees hold fruit better than younger ones, so be patient if some fruit drops off in the first three years. This should stop as the plant ages. Once the plant is well established, it will live for many years. Gardeners should also be prepared to protect young blooms or fruit from cold if the weather blasts plants with a frost after the blooms open.
Fall is a good time to shop for pomegranate trees, and it’s also a good time to plant them. When shopping, be sure to ask for a fruiting type, as there is an ornamental species that does not fruit. Gardeners should also look for varieties that are adapted to Alabama. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s fruit bulletin recommends Wonderful, which is the most well-known commercial plant. Petals from the Past, an Alabama nursery in Jemison known for its work with fruit, offers six varieties: Cloud and White, which produce a light colored juice; Mulan, Rafi, Russian and Granada, which are much more red inside. Russian types are cold hardy, tolerating temperatures as low as 8 degrees. Each of these types need about 500 chilling hours – the number of hours below 45 degrees to which the plants are exposed. Pomegranates keep for weeks after harvesting, allowing fans of the fruit to enjoy a delicious treat well into the winter months.