You can subscribe to this blog

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Punica granatum, Pomegranate

A ripe pomegranate fruit is a natural object of great beauty - as are its seeds, with their succulent juicy aril, when they are scattered like jewels over a salad. There are few fruits that have a richer store of mythology associated with them. In antiquity they were associated with fertility, due to their numerous seeds and the ease with which these germinate. It’s easy to grow pomegranate as an attractive conservatory plant by sowing a few seeds, then training the resulting plants on a single stem and shortening the shoots in the crown of the plant, to produce a compact head of foliage bearing attractive, waxy scarlet flowers – but usually no fruits in Britain.

Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany

Pomegranate originates from northern Iran but by Roman times its popularity as a thirst-quenching fruit meant that it had spread around the Mediterranean. The Romans imported what they considered to be the finest fruits from Carthage, which they called Punica and which has provided the plant with its generic name. Pomegranates were widely grown in Roman villas and there are frescoes in the House of the Fruit Orchard in Pompeii dating from AD79 which depict the tree in fruit. According to Roman mythology, pomegranates are indirectly responsible for winter. In one version of the story Proserpina, daughter of Jupiter and Ceres (the goddess of the harvest), was abducted by Pluto and dragged into the underworld. In anger, Ceres froze the harvest and paced the earth, leaving desert wherever she travelled. Jupiter’s messenger Mercury eventually persuaded Pluto to let Proserpina go, but not before she had eaten six pomegranate seeds, the food of the dead, condemning her to live six months of the year with Pluto, during which time crops above withered in the winter, but when she returned to earth for the remaining six months she brought spring with her.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Prosperpine (1874). Tate Gallery London
Image source: Wikipedia

By the 4th. century AD the fruit had acquired Christian symbolism, with the many seeds within the fruit representing the followers of the church. There is a wonderful mosaic from a Roman villa at Hinton St. Mary in Dorset depicting Christ flanked by two pomegranates, which by then had become symbols of Christian devotion. Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII adopted the pomegranate, with its crown-like shape, as her badge and the fruit features in historical and literary associations in Spain.

There is only one other species of pomegranate, P. protopunica, an endemic on the island of Socotra, and Punica is the only genus in the family Punicaceae.