Arizona Backyard Landscaping Ideas
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai CountyPomegranates are easy to grow, have beautiful flowers, and are well suited to our desert environment. They are native to southeastern Europe and Asia and have been cultivated in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, and Iran. The Spanish brought them to Mexico, California, and Arizona in the 16th century. Although pomegranates have not attained the popularity of other fruits, they are worthy of a place in your backyard garden.
Pomegranates (Punica granatum) grow on woody plants that more closely resemble shrubs than trees. Mature plants are usually 6 to 12 feet in height and can easily be trained to a tree form or espaliered against a wall or fence. Pomegranate plants are deciduous, have small oval leaves, and are somewhat thorny. They require full sun, tolerate our alkaline soils, summer heat, and winter lows to 10 degrees F. They are somewhat drought tolerant, but should be irrigated similar to other fruit trees for optimum fruit quality.
Mature fruits are 2 to 5 inches in diameter, have purple to reddish skin (some varieties are pink), which contain hundreds of seeds. The fruits resemble apples but are actually berries and ripen between August and September. Inside the tough outer skin are seeds, each surrounded by a membrane that encloses a juicy pulp: this is the edible portion of the plant. They can be eaten fresh. The juice is somewhat tart and the seed has a slight nutty flavor. Pomegranates are often juiced and can be used to make jelly.
Plants are available from nurseries usually in five-gallon containers. "Wonderful" is the best fruiting variety for our area. There are also flowering varieties available but these produce small, inedible fruit. Pomegranates can be grown from seed, but should be propagated from cuttings to ensure fruit quality and characteristics. To propagate from cuttings, remove shoots 6 to 8 inches long that are the diameter of a pencil or larger. Cuttings should be taken in February or March and placed vertically in soil with the top, dormant bud exposed. Dusting with rooting hormone, such as Rootone, on the cut end will enhance root formation.
As stated above, pomegranates have a shrubby growth form. This is because they produce many suckers from the root and crown area. To encourage a tree-like form, select one trunk and remove suckers on a regular basis. Three to five scaffold branches should be selected starting about 10 inches above the soil level and spaced 4 to 6 inches apart along the trunk. As the tree takes shape, select 2 or 3 shoots per scaffold branch. Annual pruning consists of removing dead wood and crossing/interfering branches. Remove suckers as they appear.
Pomegranate trees are self-fruitful, so a second tree is unnecessary for fruit production. Severe fruit drop during the plant's juvenile period (3-5 years) is not uncommon. Mature trees seem to set and hold fruit better than younger trees. Fruit drop is aggravated by practices favoring leafy growth such as over-fertilization and excess watering.
Once established, applying nitrogen fertilizer can enhance fruit quality and plant vigor. Young trees should receive about two pounds of 8-8-8 or similar analysis fertilizer in November and March. Mature trees can use twice this amount applied at the same times.
Pomegranates are somewhat resistant to Texas Root Rot (Phymatotrichum omnivorum), which is present in the Verde Valley. So, if you have experienced losses due to this disease, you may be inspired to try pomegranates.
Pomegranates have uses other than food. For instance, a red dye can be extracted from the flowers, a yellow dye from the skin of the fruit, and a black dye from the roots. The wood is also very hard, close-grained, durable, and has been used for building agricultural implements.
The plant also contains several alkaloids and tannins in the bark and roots and has been used medicinally for more than 3, 000 years. For instance, they are purported to paralyze tapeworms so that they can be purged from the body. As with any folk remedy, I would not ingest any plant part other than the fruit without first consulting a doctor. Finally, an acknowledgement: many thanks to my Pima County Cooperative Extension colleague, John Begeman, for the much of the horticultural information presented in this column.