The pomegranate is one of those fruits that everyone has heard of and few have actually tried. From the outside, it does not always look particularly appealing. Although the skin, when ripe, takes on a deep ruby color rarely rivaled in nature, it is thick, tough, and somewhat daunting to combat. Like so many things in life, however, the rewards of taking the time to get to know this delightful and exotic fruit are vast.
The pomegranate is unlike any other fruit. Although it is similar in size to an orange, its shape is an odd combination of a sphere and a hexagon, with a prominent calyx on one end. The reasoning behind this somewhat complex shape is the brilliant pattern of seeds inside the thick husk. A pomegranate, when opened, reveals a dense collection of seeds nestled among a whitish, spongy pulp.
Although the pulp of the pomegranate is edible, it is the seeds that provide the real treat. Each seed is individually encased in crimson colored sac. The juice of this sac is what provides the tart taste and the deep red color that consumers find in the variety of juices and pomegranate-based products currently on the market. If not eaten carefully, this same juice can stain the fingers a reddish-purplish color—a telltale sign that the allure of the pomegranate has once again proven too strong. Overall, the seeds and their encasings count for about half of the pomegranate’s weight.
Depending on the variety and degree of ripeness, the seeds of the pomegranate can vary in taste from only a little sour (similar to ripe cherries) to fairly sharp (similar to uncooked cranberries). They can be enjoyed straight by simply eating the seeds, in any of a number of pomegranate-derived goods, or as a juice. Those with milder tastes often find the commercially-available juice blends more palatable than straight pomegranate juice, which can be fairly robust.
The recent explosion of interest in the pomegranate is due in large part to its recent classification as a “superfruit.” Like the name suggests, superfruits are typically more in demand than garden-variety bananas and apples. By definition, superfruits are exotic fruits with higher than average levels of antioxidants, nutritional content, and success with modern consumers. The pomegranate fulfills each of these categories and has even been featured in a number of scientific studies for its ability to combat the aging process. The pomegranate has become so popular of late that it has even surpassed the blueberry, America’s once-favorite superfruit, in terms of popularity.
Though originally from the Middle East, pomegranates are now commonly grown in California and its mild-to-temperate climactic equivalents. The varieties out of California are typically available in most specialty stores (and even in many chain grocery stores) at their peak of productivity, which is between September and January. Pomegranates grow on bushes that can reach heights of 50 feet, although most commercial varieties are much kinder on their cultivators, reaching an average height closer to between 10 and 20 feet.
Pomegranates are considered by many to be a pretty tough and ancient breed. Not only are the bushes able to grow to considerable heights, but they can live for hundreds of years (even though the best fruits are typically only produced in the first few decades of the pomegranate bush’s long life). Pomegranates are also known for their ability to withstand lengthy droughts; in fact, climates with too much moisture during the ripening season can cause damage to the roots and fruits.
Further contributing to their aura of antiquity is the pomegranate’s appearance in a number of historical and mythological tales. Its origin lies in the ancient lands of Afghanistan and the Mediterranean, and it has been enjoyed in cooking and medicine throughout the Middle East for centuries.
In Iran, the juicing of the pomegranate is an enjoyable household chore. In Italy, the act of opening the pomegranate—a task that many consider to be the major barrier in enjoying this delightful fruit—is considered a means of social interaction. It’s no wonder that people have been interested in this fruit long before American consumers got wind of its incredibly delicious and healthful properties.