Neil Sperry: Pomegranate pointers

05/30/2014 12:00 AM

05/29/2014 12:31 PM

They’re probably not going to become mainstream landscape or orchard plants here in North Texas, but pomegranates are lovely additions to local gardens, if only for the beauty of their late spring blooms and their showy fruit in the fall.

The fact is, the farther you go south and southwest from Fort Worth, the more likely you are to see pomegranates in cultivation. They’re well adapted to hot, arid conditions — assuming they get ample irrigation, of course.

Often seen growing near figs, pomegranates are popular side-yard trees in Mexican haciendas. I spent a month with my parents while Dad did herbicide research in northern Mexico, and I can still see those adobe courtyard walls spotlighted by the bright orange blooms in the summer.

If you’d like to try your hand at growing pomegranates, here are some tidbits to remember.

• Think of pomegranates as shrubs, not as trees. In our area, you’ll only frustrate yourself if you try to grow them single-trunked.
• Pomegranates need sun to grow properly. When shade begins to encroach, pomegranate plants will start stretching for sunlight, and that’s never good for the production of flowers and fruit.
• The plants will grow to be 8 to 12 feet tall and 7 or 8 feet wide. That’s about the same size as a small crape myrtle or a trimmed yaupon holly, so you can certainly use pomegranates as anchoring shrubs at the corners of beds.
• If you have just a little protection from the coldest weather of winter, that would probably serve your pomegranate well. This past winter as an example, we can see it get cold enough to do them harm. Luckily, that’s not a common occurrence. A few of our plants locally were frozen completely to the ground.

While that’s certainly not something anyone wants to see happen, it’s not a big deal in the long term, because pomegranates are started from cuttings, and those new root sprouts that will come back vigorously from the plants’ bases will be genetically the same as the old plant that froze.

• Choose a good variety. There are ornamental types that have fully double, frilly flowers with dozens of petals, and there are the types (also very attractive, just not quite as showy) that produce edible fruit. You want to be sure that you’re getting what you expect. Read the descriptions carefully, and ask ample questions.

The old standard fruit-producing variety has always been ‘Wonderful.’ It is widely available in area nurseries during the summer. It’s the variety that tends to suffer winter damage just a little more often. Its fruit is somewhat tart, and the ripening fruit commonly split open as they near maturity.

With all the interest in pomegranates in recent years, we’ve also seen several new varieties coming into the market, primarily from Russia. I haven’t grown any of these personally, but they’re receiving high marks, so you might want to consider them. Here are three of the best.

Al-Sirin-Nar has large, glossy red fruit that are sweet, yet tart. This variety ripens in late October.

Salavatski produces large, sweet fruit that also brings a sweet tartness. It ripens mid-October, and the plants show good winter hardiness.

Surh Anor produces consistently. Its fruit is large and sweet, ripening in mid-October.

Pomegranate plants are really quite easily adapted into our gardens — to repeat, as long as they have full or nearly full sunlight. They do equally well in alkaline and acidic soils. If you’re in an area that occasionally stays quite wet for several days, you’ll probably want to plant your pomegranates in raised beds that will ensure good drainage.

No pruning is needed at the time of planting, nor is any specific training required in successive seasons. (Compare that to peaches, plums or grapes!) They are self-fruitful, meaning that you will not have to plant a second variety to get fruit to set.

Thinning of the fruit is rarely required. The plants naturally produce about the number of fruit that they will be able to support.

Apply a high-nitrogen or high-quality, all-nitrogen fertilizer (1/2-pound per inch of cumulative trunk diameter) in late March, and repeat every two months — late May and late July.

As I glance back through my notes, I realize that the most difficult part of growing pomegranates in your North Texas garden will be in finding some of the varieties. I did a quick Web search, and there are ample sources available online. Nurseries will surely begin bringing in some of the newer types as this summer and future years unfold.

Womack Nursery in De Leon offers eight or 10 types (www.womacknursery.com). And almost everyone sells the old standard Wonderful.

If you just want their good looks…

If you’re more interested in pomegranates for their showy flowers than for their edible fruit, here are several options:

• ‘Chico’ is a dwarf plant, growing only to 2 to 3 feet tall. Its leaves, its flowers and even its fruit all look like half-sized versions of normal pomegranates. It’s a grand little novelty plant in perennial gardens. It is commonly found in nurseries in summer.
• ‘Legrellei’ produces variegated flowers in shades of salmon, pink, white and yellow. The plants grow to normal size, but they do not bear fruit. It is rarely found in local nurseries.
• ‘Pleniflora’ produces double flowers (numerous petals) in the traditional brilliant orange-red color. It does not bear fruit. It, too, is rarely found in local nurseries.

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