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The Garden Guru: What a juicy find

Posted Saturday, Jul. 21, 2012

By Neil Sperry

Special to the Star-Telegram

Pomegranates are what would be called in baseball terms utility infielders. They can step in to fill just about any need you might have, whether you're looking for a lovely flowering landscaping shrub, a deciduous screening hedge or a fruit-producing plant that requires almost no care. Whatever your need, there's a pomegranate waiting to be picked.

My appreciation for this venerable old plant goes back to my childhood.

My dad did herbicide research for Texas A&M, and he often took me with him into the dry ranches of West Texas. As he talked to the rancher about bitterweed, mescalbean, Mexican buckeye or African rue, I'd wander around, looking at the landscape plants up near the house. Almost every one of those ranches had at least one pomegranate, and it seemed like they were always in flower or fruit.

Some of those ranches didn't have many other cultivated plants, and the pomegranates shone forth like beacons.

Meanwhile, back in College Station, groundskeepers at Texas A&M must have had about the same appreciation I had for the plant, because there were long rows of ornamental (nonfruiting) types sprinkled here and there on the campus.

Everywhere I turned, there were pomegranates waiting. I grew up knowing and loving this fine group of plants.

And what's not to like about them? If you sat down and drew up the plans for a great shrub, they're what you might get: vigorous growers to 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide; deep, glossy green foliage all season, shading to rich golden yellow in fall; heat- and drought-tolerant; semidouble and fully double blooms produced in spring and intermittently through most of the summer; and large, decorative fruit that requires no spraying. Nice set of attributes, wouldn't you say?

Pomegranates need full sun for at least six to eight hours each day. Standard types grow to become large shrubs 10 or 12 feet tall and almost that wide. You don't want to have to prune them to maintain a more compact size, so use them either out in the yard as stand-alone shrubs or at corners as accents. They do best in deep, highly organic soil. They are not especially particular about the pH (acidity/alkalinity) of the soil.

While they're tolerant of droughts, they'll still grow better if you keep the soil moist at all times. Apply an all-nitrogen fertilizer in April, again in June and a final time in early September, 1 pound per cumulative inch of trunk diameter per application. Prune only as needed to maintain good plant form.

Pomegranates are started by rooting stem cuttings in greenhouse beds. That means that each plant is genetically the same from its roots to its blooms.

Should the plant ever suffer freeze damage, it'll come back from its roots, always true-to-variety. From a rooted cutting, a 5-gallon nursery plant can be produced in 15 to 18 months, depending on the level of care.

Varieties

"Wonderful" is the standard of excellence in old-time pomegranates. In fact, it may be about the only fruiting type you see sold in our area. Its fruit are large, orange-red and juicy. You should have little trouble finding it. You're more likely to locate it in an independent retail garden center that does its own local buying. National buyers' minds just aren't usually focused on this uncommon group of subtropical fruiting plants.

"Angel Red" is a much more recent introduction. Jimmy Turner at the Dallas Arboretum has included it in the plantings there, and he must have sampled a fruit or two, as he says they are much sweeter than those of Wonderful. It is sold by Monrovia Nursery Co., a large West Coast grower.

"Nana" is the dwarf variety, sometimes referred to as "Chico." It grows to 3 feet tall and 30 inches wide, and it bears dozens of miniature pomegranate blooms and golf-ball-size fruit. It's lovely in bed borders and also in large patio pots.

"Orange Blossom Special" is another dwarf type, offered by Southern Living Plant Collection. It blooms freely, and it also follows through with showy small fruit. It's being given the extra push by the grower, so you're even more likely to find it in local nurseries.

"Pleniflora" is an old, double-flowering form that attains 8 or 10 feet in height. It produces carnationlike flowers in bright orange-red. It does not set fruit, so if you already have a plant, and if its flowers are showy yet you never get fruit, this could be the reason.

"Albescens" is a creamy-white-flowering type that grows to a mature size of 8 to 10 feet tall. It rarely produces fruit. To interject a personal opinion: White-flowering pomegranates are about as compelling as white ketchup.

It should also be noted that there are scores of other varieties out in the pomegranate marketplace. Most, however, are quite rare, usually appearing only in research plots and botanic-garden plantings.

Also, if you want to learn more about pomegranates, there is a great deal of information available online. Using the genus name Punica will get you into the specifics very quickly. In fact, the University of California, Davis houses a major collection of varieties. A quick Web search of "UC Davis pomegranate" will turn up a wealth of important facts.

The only pomegranate fact that you won't find there is why a guy from College Station would have such a love affair with an orange flower.

Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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