The pomegranate gets its name from the Latin word “pomum,” meaning apple, and “granatus,” meaning seeded, with the present-day spelling most likely evolving from the French word for the fruit, “pomme-grenade.” The ancient fruit has been cultivated for centuries, and is referenced both in the Homeric Hymns and in the Old Testament.
Today, a growing awareness of the nutritional value of the pomegranate, high in anti-oxidants as well as vitamins B5 and C, is increasing demand for this already popular fruit. Commercially, pomegranates are propagated through softwood and hardwood cuttings to avoid genetic seedling variation. However, pomegranates can be started quite easily from seeds, although plants grown from seed may not retain the qualities of the parent cultivar. Pomegranates don’t require cross-pollination to produce fruit. Plants may take 1 to 5 years to consistently bear fruit.
Germinating Pomegranate Seeds
While pomegranate seeds, also called arils, can germinate even when merely tossed upon the surface of loose soil, a few tips can ensure more uniform germination. First, clean the seeds, then allow them to dry for an hour or two. Fill a seed starter tray with loose, moist soil, place the seeds on top, 2 to 3 centimeters apart, and lightly cover with loose soil. Cover with plastic wrap and keep warm (38 °C to 53 °C) until germination. Germination can take anywhere from 10 to 30 days.
Growing Pomegranate Seedlings
Pomegranate seeds need good light to grow well. If grown indoors, providing fluorescent lighting will help them flourish. Pomegranate root growth is vigorous, so plants need to be “potted up” (moved to slightly larger containers) whenever root growth begins to crowd the container. Do not fertilize pomegranate seedlings.
While pomegranates can be successfully grown in containers, plants will fruit sooner and more plentifully when planted directly in the garden after the first year. Space pomegranate plants about 4 meters apart. As pomegranates grow naturally bushy, they require some careful pruning to mature into a fruit-bearing tree. Begin by cutting back the plant to 60-75 centimeters in height. Allow the plant to branch out, then prune back to the strongest stem. Pomegranates produce numerous suckers that grow from the root and crown area, which need to be removed. Pomegranate fruit only grow at the tips of new growth, so for the first three years, lightly prune all the branches to encourage new shoots all around the plant.
Pomegranates need not be fertilized at all the first year. Over-fertilizing pomegranates can cause fruit drop, especially during the first 3 to 5 years. Use an 8-8-8 fertilizer (containing 8 percent nitrogen, 8 percent phosphoric acid and 8 percent potash) beginning the second year, applied at the end of the harvesting season and again at the first sign of flowering.
While pomegranates tolerate a variety of conditions, such as poor soil, drought and light frosts, poor conditions can affect fruit production. Pomegranates do best when regularly irrigated and protected from frost. In cooler zones, fruit can be encouraged by placing plants against a sunny wall. Pomegranate trees are susceptible to invasion by Virachola isocrate, also known as the pomegranate butterfly. The butterfly lays eggs on the flowers and calyx. Hatched caterpillars bore their way into the fruit. In India, developing fruits are covered with paper or plastic bags to protect them from borers, birds and rodents.
Depending on the variety, fruits ripen about 6 months after flowering. Harvest the fruit when ripe, as pomegranates cannot be ripened off the tree. Ripe pomegranates will make a metallic sound when tapped. For those who enjoy seeing the entire growth cycle of a plant, from seed to harvest, pomegranates are an enjoyable and delicious fruit to cultivate.