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A Sense of Herbs - Don't take this beauty for pomegranate

November 21, 2004|by Dorry Norris

I've got the real scoop on why we are subjected to those dreary days and long cold nights of winter. Lay the blame on the maiden Persephone.

According to Greek mythology, Persephone - daughter of Zeus and Demeter - was so admired by Hades, the lord of the underworld, that he seized her and carried her off to his domain. Demeter, goddess of grain and growing things, searched for her daughter everywhere. In the meantime the earth was barren. The other gods, fearful of an earth with no summer, negotiated for Persephone's return. Because she had eaten several seeds of the forbidden pomegranate, she was condemned to spend six months of every year with Hades. During her absence the earth is left to suffer in the throes of winter.

Having tasted and enjoyed pomegranates myself, I'm surprised Persephone didn't gobble down a whole forbidden fruit and thus leave the world in perpetual cold and darkness. In modern times we can welcome winter with this most ancient of fruits - the season for which runs from mid-October to late December.

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At first glance the pomegranate doesn't look promising. But inside that rough, leathery skin are - I've read but never counted - exactly 840 seeds. Not surprisingly, with all those seeds, the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility. In Christian art it represented hope and immortality.

Each seed is surrounded by a sac of lusciously red, sweet-tart juice. The seeds are compacted in layers resembling a honeycomb around the core. The layers of seeds are separated by paper-thin white membranes that are bitter to the taste.

To enjoy the fruit out of hand score the skin deeply several times vertically, then break it apart. You can then pick the seeds out of the membrane to eat. It's messy but worth the effort. Many pomegranate fanciers consider this not an onerous task but rather a pleasant group activity that prolongs dining pleasure.

Pomegranate juice is widely popular in the Middle East. You can buy it bottled or make your own by cutting the fruit in half and using an orange reamer.

The botanical name is Punicum granatum. Punicum recognizes Carthage as a focal point for pomegranate cultivation and granatum refers to the many seeds or grains in the fruit. Common names include punic apple and granada.

Choose fruits that are plump and round and heavy for their size, with a rich, fresh color and free of cuts and blemishes. Whole fruits can be stored for a month in a cool, dry area or refrigerated up to two months. The seed pips can be frozen in an airtight bag up to one year. The seeds are wonderful strewn on a spinach salad or used to garnish sauted pork chops.

The pomegranate is a multitalented tree. The pomegranate has glossy, leathery leaves that are narrow and lance-shaped. To my mind the most endearing feature of the tree is the exquisite waxy, funnel-shaped, orange-red flowers. The beauty of the flowers and fascinating interior structure of the fruits have inspired artists through the ages. Tannin from the trunk bark was, at one time, important in the production of Moroccan leather. The rind and the flowers yield dyes for textiles, and ink can be made by steeping the leaves in vinegar.

It has many pharmaceutical uses as well. In northern India, a major use of the wild fruits is for the preparation of "anardana" - the juice sacs (and seeds) are dried in the sun for 10 to 15 days and then sold as a spice.

The pomegranate is native from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India, and, since ancient times, has been cultivated over the whole Mediterranean region. Pomegranates prefer a semi-arid mild-temperate to subtropical climate. A humid climate adversely affects the formation of fruit. However the humid summers here in Hagerstown don't keep my 11-year-old dwarf pomegranate (Punicum granatum var. nana) from flowering and producing fruit. Since we are on the edge of the tree's hardiness zone, mine spends the winter indoors and the summer in its pot in the Bible garden.

My dwarf pomegranate stays about three feet tall. I worried when it dropped its leaves, then I discovered the tree is deciduous. The branches are stiff, angular and slightly spiny. In the spring I will add a mulch of rotted manure.

Since Persephone has already done the mischief there's no reason you can't enjoy as many pomegranates as you choose. Loaded with vitamin C, they are a perfect winter fruit.

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