Pomegranate, Pomegranate Juice, Pomegranate Tree, Pomegranate Health Benefits
Family: Punicaceae (pomegranate family)
Scientific Name: Punica granatum L.
• The word “pomegranate” is from the Latin pomum granatum, meaning “apple of many seeds,” an apt description. The Latin granatum, “(many) grained” or “(many) seeds,” is also in the scientific name P. granatum and additionally turns up in grenadine, the name for the thick, sweet syrup made from pomegranate.
• The genus name Punica was the Roman name for the ancient North African city-state Carthage, from where the best pomegranates came to Italy. The Romans called pomegranates “Carthaginian apples.” Punicus strictly refers to Phoenicia in Asia Minor but in ancient Rome was more frequently used to mean Carthage.
The pomegranate is an attractive shrub or small tree, 6 to 10 m (20–33 ft.) high, much-branched, more or less spiny, and extremely long-lived (specimens grown at Versailles, France have survived for two centuries). The plant has a strong tendency to sucker from the base. The leaves are deciduous, or occasionally evergreen in hot climates. The fruit is about the size of an orange (typically about 7.5 cm or 3 in. in diameter) and has a thin, hard, red (occasionally yellowish) skin. The protruding blossom end of the fruit gives it the appearance of a dullish Christmas tree ornament. The fruit is internally segmented into irregular compartments separated by tough membranes. Inside are hundreds of small seeds, each surrounded by juicy translucent red pulp (sometimes colorless, sometimes purple-red or pink). The seeds and their pulp are the edible portion of the fruit. The seeds represent about half of the weight of the fruit. There are many varieties, of which ‘Wonderful’, which originated in Florida, is the major cultivar of California and Israel and the kind most likely to be found in North American supermarkets. In Japan, pomegranate trees are commonly used for bonsai because of their attractive flowers and the unusual twisted bark developed by older specimens. Dwarf forms (often called “Nana”) are also available for those wishing to grow plants in containers.
The pomegranate tree is native from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India and has been cultivated since ancient times throughout the Mediterranean region of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Pomegranates may have been cultivated in Persia (Iran) for the last 5000 years. The fruit was featured in Egyptian mythology and art, praised in the Old Testament of the Bible and in the Babylonian Talmud, and carried by desert caravans for the sake of its thirst-quenching juice. The most important growing regions are Egypt, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, India, Burma, and Saudi Arabia. Pomegranates are also raised in tropical Africa and Central and South America. There is limited cultivation in the dry areas of California and Arizona.
The pomegranate is adapted to mild-temperate and subtropical regions and can be grown outdoors as far north as Utah and Washington, DC, although it does not fruit often in the latter locations. The plants are sometimes grown as hedges. Pomegranates are popular southern garden plants, and dwarf, ornamental varieties, some with golf-ball–sized fruit, are also grown in tubs in northern areas so that they can be brought indoors overwinter. Pomegranate flowers are typically vermillion, but ornamental varieties may have white flowers, and double-flowered forms also have been selected.
Eating a pomegranate requires time and patience, often lacking in modern times, explaining why the fruit has lost some of its appeal as a fresh fruit. Pomegranates can be consumed fresh by deeply scoring them several times vertically and breaking them apart to reveal the clusters of juice sacs, which can be lifted out of the rind and eaten. The leathery rind and the internal membranes separating the sections are inedible. Many people consume only the juicy, refreshing, tangy-sweet flesh surrounding the pips (seeds) and discard the latter. Pomegranates have been very important in Iranian cuisine for thousands of years. The fruit can be used to enhance salads, soups, sauces, vegetables, cheeses, poultry, and seafood.
Pomegranate juice is a very popular beverage and is widely made into the syrup known as grenadine for use in alcoholic cocktails as well as nonalcoholic kinds of mixed refreshing beverages. Grenadine is the main ingredient in a Shirley Temple cocktail. The sweet syrup is also used to flavor a wide variety of desserts, including ice cream and sorbets. Store-bought “grenadine” may be merely a confection of red food coloring. For home use, the juice can be extracted from the fruit by reaming the halved fruits on an ordinary orange-juice squeezer (although it might be hard to find one today in the average kitchen). Pomegranate juice can be sipped right out of the fruit. Roll the pomegranate on a flat surface, pressing gently to pop the seeds inside. Poke a hole near the top and insert a straw. Be aware that the rich, scarlet juice will stain. Pomegranate juice is used to flavor and color sauces in the Middle East. In northern India, fresh grenadine pomegranate juice is used to marinate meat, the proteolytic enzymes acting as a meat tenderizer.
Squeezing out pomegranate juice tends to result in tannin exuding from the membranes, resulting in astringency (tannins are mouth-puckering substances that are chiefly responsible for astringency in plant foods). Some of the tannin can be removed by stirring in a little dissolved gelatin, which reacts with the tannin to produce an insoluble compound (a cloud forms that can be filtered away). Allowing the fruit to shrivel before being crushed also reduces tannins in the juice.
In the Middle East, pomegranate seeds are dried and used as a spice, especially for meat dishes, and in Mexico the seeds are also used as a topping or garnish. Seedless varieties are available but are not popular. Experienced pomegranate fanciers either prefer the crunch of the seeds, which are pleasant in texture, or have learned to suck off the juicy flesh surrounding the seeds and spit them out. Pomegranates are picked when fully mature, as they will not ripen after harvest. The fruit is equal to the apple in having a long storage life and can be kept in a refrigerator for several weeks. Nutritionally, the pomegranate has much to offer. A single fruit may contain 40% of an adult’s daily requirements for vitamins A, B3 (niacin), C, and E, and it also supplies folic acid, natural estrogens, and potassium. Pomegranate is considered to be a rich source of antioxidants-chemicals that protect the body against free radicals that result in aging. Because the skin can directly absorb some nutritional chemicals, pomegranate is sometimes included in shampoos and face creams.
• A “Bacardi cocktail” is one made with lime juice, sugar, grenadine, and Bacardi light rum. In 1936, the New York Supreme Court ruled that authentic “Bacardi cocktails” had to be made with the rum made by Bacardi Imports, Inc., of Miami, Florida, which held the registered trademark on the brand “Bacardi.”
• Koliva is a traditional Greek food made from boiled wheat, cinnamon nuts, and pomegranate seeds, pressed into cakelike forms and covered with powdered sugar. This ancient preparation symbolizes the cycle of life, and so is often served at Greek funerals.
• Dibs rumman (pronounced deebs room-man) is a Hindi term for pomegranate syrup, used in Indian cuisine.
CURIOSITIES OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
• Archaeologist Sir William Cristal discovered the earliest known menu, carved in hieroglyphics on stone tablets, in 1922 while excavating the pyramid that contained the tomb of an Egyptian prince. The menu was for the meal that was presented to celebrate the birth of the Prince’s twin sons, one of whom was to later become Ramses III, probably the most powerful and famous of all Egyptian Pharaohs. According to the menu, there were two first courses-garlic in sour cream and barley soup. This was followed by salmon from the Tigris River. The main course consisted of roast pig and goat cheese. Honey cakes, fresh dates, and pomegranates were served for dessert.
• The Hittites (a conquering people of Asia Minor and Syria during the second millennium BC) had a law code, which included fines for damaging pomegranate trees (as well as some other crops, including grape vines).
• In ancient Rome, brides wore headdresses made from twigs of the pomegranate. The juice was considered to promote fertility. In Judaism, the pomegranate is also a symbol of fertility, relating to the first commandment of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. An Oriental practice was to burst pomegranates in the bedchamber when the newlyweds entered, signifying that the marriage should be blessed with many children. In Turkey, a bride was expected to throw the fruit on the ground, with the number of seeds being released indicative of the number of children she would have. Arab brides also smashed pomegranates in their tents to promote the birth of many children. Similarly in Chinese and Indian cultures, the pomegranate symbolizes fertility. Some Chinese women offer pomegranates to the Goddess of Mercy in the hope of becoming pregnant, and pomegranates are thrown on the bedroom floors of newlyweds. In Christianity, the pomegranate is a symbol of the Resurrection and also the Virgin Mary (both representing aspects of life-giving forces, and so also associated with fertility).
• An old custom in Morocco was to squeeze the juice of pomegranate on the horns of oxen that plowed fields, or on the blades of the plows, to promote good crops. This is one of many examples of a plant associated with human fertility also being associated with crop fertility.
• The pomegranate is the oldest symbol of Judaism, predating the Star of David by hundreds of years. Pomegranate-shaped pommels (knobs) are used to cover the wooden handles of the Torah (the Jewish scriptures on scrolls that are read in synagogues). Moses was ordered to put embroidered pomegranates at the bottom of the high priest’s robes. The golden bells decorating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem were pomegranateshaped, and pomegranate images also appeared on mosaic floors, in stone friezes, and on ancient coins. The pomegranate has been called the “national fruit” of Israel, but this designation has also been given to the cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Mill.;).
• Fruitcakes were first made in Roman times, the recipe generally calling for pomegranates as the chief constituent.
• The Moors were mixed Arab and Berber (a North African people) conquerors of Spain in the eighth century. They introduced the pomegranate and a method of tanning leather with pomegranate juice to Spain, resulting in the deep, rich, blood-red of cordovan leather ( so-named because it was originally manufactured in the region of Cordoba, Spain).
• Women in some countries stain their teeth red by eating pomegranate flowers. By contrast, some Polynesians dye their teeth black with the rind. In Italy, pomegranate leaves were once made into a mouthwash that was considered good for loose teeth.
• The French used the word grenade for an explosive shell that strewed metal particles over a wide area and grenadiers for the special regiments (founded in 1791) of soldiers who launched these new weapons, basing the words on the seed-scattering characteristic of a pomegranate when it is smashed.
• As noted earlier, granatum in the scientific name P. granatum means “(many) grained,” a poetic way of expressing the thought that there are many seeds present, and the old Latin name for pomegranate was pomum granatum (“many-seeded apple”). The historical association of the Latin word granatum with the pomegranate is thought to have given rise to the word garnet based on the deep red color of pomegranate seeds. Garnets are gemstones of various colors, including red. They are used as semiprecious gemstones (particularly as the birthstone for January) and as an abrasive, particularly in “garnet paper.” Red garnets have even been used as bullets (e.g., in the southwestern United States) because of the curious thought that their red color predisposed them to making wounds bloodier.
• In Iran, cut-open pomegranates are sometimes stomped by a person wearing special shoes in a clay tub and the expressed juice is run through outlets into clay troughs.
• Studies published in 2001 in Nutrition Science News suggested that pomegranate juice lowers the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol that contributes to the clogging of arteries. The antioxidants in pomegranates-bioflavonoids-were described as having three times the activity of those in red wine and green tea, and so the fruit may also be useful in combating disease and slowing the aging process.
• The pomegranate family, Punicaceae, includes only one genus and two species, including the well-known pomegranate and the little-known P. protopunica Balf., which is peculiar to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean.