Sunday, March 22, 2015

Plant Story -- Pomegranates, Punica granatum, in History

pomegranates, Punica granatum
pomegranates, Punica granatum 
Pomegranates are a backyard shrub if you live where there are virtually no frosts, but an exotic fruit to people in climates with cold winters. The fruit ships well enough that northern grocery stores for decades have had pomegranate fruits now and then as novelties.

It is an easy fruit to recognize:  a dull orangy red hard outer coating and inside something like 300 seeds, each in a BRIGHT red sphere of translucence. I remember my first reaction as VERY wary--they looked like red fish eyes or frog's eggs. But one taste made me a fan! Pomegranate seeds are delicious!

pomegranates with seeds
pomegranates with seeds

People centuries before me had that experience. Pomegranates have been cultivated since about 3,000 BCE. They apparently were domesticated from wild trees at the southern end of the Caucuses, northeastern Turkey and/or at the southern end of the Caspian Sea. There are still wild trees there. They appear to have been domesticated about the same time as dates, figs, grapes and olives. 

The scientific name is Punica granatum. Long separated into a family of their own (Punicaceae), pomegranates are now classified in the Lythraceae, the loosestrife family. 

The scientific name is based on the name used by the Roman writer Pliny. He called them malus punica, which is "Carthagean apple" or "apple from Carthage." Punic was the Latin adjective for Carthage in north Africa and its surroundings, the culture which succeeded the Phoenicians. Destroyed by Rome, Carthage was in what is today Tunisia. Rome imported pomegranates from them when they weren't at war. 

In the scientific name, granatum means "many seeded," which pomegranates certainly are.

Our English common name, pomegranate, says the same thing. Pome is a Latin word for apple (or fruit), and there is granate again, "many seeded".

pomegranate flower
pomegranate flower
Everybody in the ancient world loved pomegranates.

Zoroastrians (in the Persian Empire, by the 6th century BCE) used pomegranates in initiation ceremonies and marriages. (See previous post on pomegranates LINK).

They arrived in Egypt from Syria about 3600 years ago and probably places in between got them about that time.  

The Phoenicians may have taken the pomegranate to North Africa and the western Mediterranean. They can and do grow in Sicily, mediterranean France and southern Spain. Zhang Qian, ambassador from the Han Chinese court to Greco-Bactrian capital Kabul carried a pomegranate tree to China when he returned home. He planted it in the Han capital Chang'an (now Xi'an) in 135 BC. From there it was dispersed across Asia.

Developing fruit, pomegranate
The shape of pomegranate fruits have had curious influence on us: for crowns and bombs. The top of the fruit was reportedly shape of the crown of Solomon. King of Israel (970-931 BC). Subsequent crowns, including most of those in modern Europe, are frequently modelled after Solomon's crown. Then, pomegranates gave their name to the hand grenade. The grenade, a small bomb that is thrown by hand, was developed for European warfare in the 15th and 16th centuries (tho there were grenades before that in China and Byzantium). The French army called this weapon a pomegranate, grenade in French. The similarity is obvious: hand-sized and full of seeds, although the "seeds" in a hand grenade are deadly. (more on grenade history: army inventors).

pomegranate and water caltrops
pomegranates and water caltrops, seen in China
Pomegranates are novelty fruits in many places, but in the Middle East and India, they are important staples, used as spices or juices in cooking. Pomegranate concentrate is incorporated into Lebanese and Mediterranean sauces, soups, meat dishes, salads and couscous. Dried seeds are a spice (anardana) for sweet-sour dishes in northwest India, especially Punjab and Gujarat.

Grenadine is the syrup of pomegranates, used to add flavor or color various alcoholic drinks. Pomegranate juice itself is a popular beverage from the eastern Mediterranean to India.


If you haven't eaten a pomegranate recently, take the next opportunity to do so!

Comments and corrections welcome.

My pictures are from Tortola in the Caribbean, southern Spain, southern China, northern California, Tuscany, Italy and a northern Colorado grocery store: pomegranates have conquered the world

Previous post on pomegranates: Plant Story--Pomegranates, Punica granatum--in Story and Symbolism link

Bynum, H. and W. 2014. Remarkable Plants that Shape our World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Print.
Food Pomegranates Link Lots more wonderful pomegranate information! Accessed 2/12/15.
Vamosh, M. F. (no date given) Holy Land's Food at the Time of the Bible. Palphot Ltd., Herzlia, Israel. Print.
van Wyk, B-E. 2005. Food plants of the world. Timber 2005. Print


Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazon link.

Kathy Keeler

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