The beautiful fruit, pomegranate, or melograno in Italian

I love pomegranates. I remember the first time I ever saw one. I was in 2nd grade and a classmate’s mother brought one to our class for us to try. I thought they were beautiful, exotic, and I loved the taste. For years after, I would beg my mom to buy one at the supermarket. They were very messy and the juice stained whatever I was wearing. I would bite the juicy part from the seed and my mom couldn’t believe I would go to so much trouble for such a small reward. But, I thought the taste was worth the trouble.

Years later, I still love them, only now I just chew the seeds and swallow them with the juice.

Even more outstandingly for me, I live in Florence and there are several coffee houses (bars) in town that serve freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I look forward to October/November, when the juice starts becoming available.

I feel so lucky to live in a place where pomegranate shrubs grow tall and bear lots of fruit. I go crazy taking pictures of the reddish globes that decorate the branches like Christmas tree baubles.

The name pomegranate derives from medieval Latin pōmum “apple” and grānātum “seeded.” Possibly stemming from the old French word for the fruit, pomme-grenade, the pomegranate was known in early English as “apple of Grenada”—a term which today survives only in heraldic blazons. This is a folk etymology, confusing the Latin granatus with the name of the Spanish city of Granada, which derives from Arabic.

Pomegranates are drought-tolerant, and can be grown in dry areas with either a Mediterranean winter rainfall climate or in summer rainfall climates. In wetter areas, they can be prone to root decay from fungal diseases. They can be tolerant of moderate frost, down to about −10 °F.

The pomegranate is native to a region from modern-day Iran to northern India. Pomegranates have been cultivated throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Mediterranean region for several millennia, and it is also cultivated in the Central Valley of California and in Arizona.

Pomegranates may have been domesticated as early as the fifth millennium BC, as they were one of the first fruit trees to be domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Carbonized exocarp of a pomegrante has been identified in early Bronze Age levels of Tell es-Sultan (Jericho) in the West Bank, as well as late Bronze Age levels of Hala Sultan Tekke on Cyprus and Tiryns. A large, dry pomegranate was found in the tomb of Djehuty, the butler of Queen Hatshepsut in Egypt; Mesopotamian cuneiform records mention pomegranates from the mid-third millennium BC onwards. Waterlogged pomegranate remains have been identified at the circa 14th century BC Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. Other goods on the ship include perfume, ivory and gold jewelry, suggesting that pomegranates at this time may have been considered a luxury good. Other archaeological finds of pomegranate remains from the Late Bronze Age have been found primarily in elite residences, supporting this inference.

The shrub is also extensively grown in southern China and in Southeast Asia, whether originally spread along the route of the Silk Road or brought by sea traders. Kandahar is famous in Afghanistan for its high-quality pomegranates.

Although not native to Korea or Japan, the pomegranate is widely grown there and many cultivars have been developed. It is widely used for bonsai because of its flowers and for the unusual twisted bark the older specimens can attain. The term “balaustine” (Latin: balaustinus) is also used for a pomegranate-red color.

Spanish colonists later introduced the fruit to the Caribbean and America (Spanish America), but in the English colonies, it was less at home: “Don’t use the pomegranate inhospitably, a stranger that has come so far to pay his respects to thee,” the English Quaker Peter Collinson wrote to the botanizing John Bartram in Philadelphia, 1762. “Plant it against the side of thy house, nail it close to the wall. In this manner it thrives wonderfully with us, and flowers beautifully, and bears fruit this hot year. I have twenty-four on one tree… Doctor Fothergill says, of all trees this is most salutiferous to mankind.”

The pomegranate had been introduced as an exotic to England the previous century, by John Tradescant the Elder, but the disappointment that it did not set fruit there led to its repeated introduction to the American colonies, including New England. It succeeded in the South: Bartram received a barrel of pomegranates and oranges from a correspondent in Charleston, South Carolina, 1764. John Bartram partook of “delitious” pomegranates with Noble Jones at Wormsloe Plantation, near Savannah, Georgia, in September 1765. Thomas Jefferson planted pomegranates at Monticello in 1771; he had them from George Wythe of Williamsburg.

To end, just a few delightful images of how pomegranates inspire artists:

Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé, 1885

Open Pomegranate in a Dish, with Grasshopper, Snail and Two Chestnuts, c. 1652 by Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670)

Madonna of the Pomegranate, c. 1487, Sandro Botticelli

Pomegrantes in Majorca, by John Singer Sargent

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