Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2007
Regional Report

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Pomegranate flowers ready to open in spring provide a punch of bright color.

Pomegranates Thrive in the Desert

Pomegranate fruit arrives in grocery stores in fall. Its antioxidant cancer-fighting properties have been highlighted in the media lately, which may help explain the rather high expense. My local market was selling them for $2.50 each last week. Maybe its time to consider adding a pomegranate plant (Punica granatum) to the landscape. They offer plenty of positive characteristics in addition to fruit.

Seasonal Interest
In spring, orange trumpet-shaped flowers contrast vividly against the tree's dark green, glossy foliage. These showy blossoms are a sure-fire hummingbird attractant, and the diminutive flyers often become territorial about protecting "their" nectar source, dive-bombing any interlopers in an entertaining aerobatics show. In fall, the tree is studded with apple-sized red fruits. (Its name is derived from "pomme," the French word for "apple.") Also, leaves turn golden-yellow to provide autumn color.

Although deciduous, pomegranates feature dense foliage that creates a privacy screen for much of the year. They grow naturally as a bushy shrub about 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide. However, they can be trained as a tree, and I've seen them grow quite a bit taller and wider. Pomegranates are self-fruitful, meaning only one tree is required for pollination.

Growing Pomegranates
Pomegranates thrive in hot, dry summers and withstand cold temperatures to as low as 10 degrees F. They don't mind alkaline soil as long as there is good drainage.

Leaf-footed plant bugs are a potential problem. They seek cracks in the fruit's leathery exterior to insert a long, piercing snout to suck juices. These bugs introduce bacteria that spoils the fruit. Remove any cracked or fallen fruit immediately.

To prevent fruit crack, ensure that the tree is not stressed for water in summer when fruit is forming. This helps the outer skin to stretch as the fruit expands. Don't leave fruit on the tree too long after ripening. Harvest it and store in the refrigerator. However, bird lovers may prefer to leave some fruit on the tree. Gila woodpecker and many other species will cling to a fruit in an acrobatic display, while pecking holes to get at the pulpy seeds. Birds will also eat the bugs. The combination of nectar, fruits, and dense cover make pomegranate a good choice for wildlife habitat.

Although pomegranate needs careful attention to watering to maximize fruit production (similar to citrus), it is not a heavy drinker. It appears in the Arizona Municipal Water User's recommended low-water-use plants brochure, Landscape Plants for the Arizona Desert.

Prune out dead branches or a few older crowded branches in late winter to encourage new growth and productive fruiting, but don't trim the ends of stems where fruit forms. 'Wonderful' is the variety most commonly grown for fruit. 'Nana' is a dwarf variety (3 feet tall) that provides similar color but but its fruit is smaller and inedible.

Pomegranates provide almost year-round seasonal interest for desert landscapes. Their biggest drawback may be the difficulty of removing tough rind to partake of the tart seeds without getting covered with berry-red juice stains. Wear old clothes and perform the task outside!

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