Strange fruit: Anna Pavord on the appeal of the pomegranate

In Greek mythology, it's the fruit of the dead. Today, it's considered a "superfood"
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The Independent Online

For Tilly, our youngest daughter, Hades provided a much more satisfactory solution to the problem of death than heaven ever did. The gods and demi-gods of Mount Olympus – Artemis and Diana, Poseidon and Apollo – could have been our next-door neighbours, she talked about them with such familiarity. She had a problem with Persephone though, on account of the pomegranate.

Persephone, as she knew, was the daughter of Zeus; her mother was Zeus's sister, Demeter, the goddess of fertility. But when Hades roared up from the underworld in a chariot, he abducted Persephone from the meadow where she was picking flowers. A chasm opened in the earth, the chariot returned to the kingdom of dark and death and Persephone became Hades' unwilling bride.

Demeter was heartbroken and wandered the earth, calling her daughter's name. Knowing that Hades would not have dared to snatch Persephone without Zeus's permission, she sent a message to her brother, demanding Persephone's return.

At first Zeus refused and Demeter put a curse on the earth, making it barren. The tributes to the gods on Olympus dried up, so eventually Zeus told Hades he must return Persephone so that corn could grow again on the earth and grapes ripen on the vine. Demeter was told she could have her daughter back, on condition that she hadn't tasted any of the food of the dead. But Persephone had picked a pomegranate from Hades' orchard and swallowed seven of its seeds.

Eventually, Demeter's mother proposed a compromise. Persephone must spend part of the year with Hades, as Queen of the Underworld. The rest of the year she could spend on earth. Demeter lifted her curse and corn grew again in Arcadia. To Triptolemus, who had first told her about Hades snatching her daughter, she gave seed corn, a wooden plough and a chariot drawn by serpents. On her instructions, he travelled the earth, initiating men into the mysteries of growing plants.

Tilly had no problem with the chariot drawn by serpents; it was as vivid as (and rather to be preferred to) our Citroë* estate car. But she had never seen a pomegranate. In the local greengrocer's shop, an avocado pear was a rare enough sighting, a pomegranate unheard of. One day, after a day trip to London, I brought one back for her. It was shiny, waxy, slightly unreal with its pointed, sculpted calyx. Carefully, we scored the skin into four quarters and broke the fruit open to reveal the seeds, embedded in their small sacs of pulp. Round them lay the white pith, like a protecting bed of cotton wool.

I think it was a disappointment to her. So much rested on this fruit: the return of a daughter, the return of spring after winter, the return of fertility after barrenness. "Are you going to taste it?" I asked. But she didn't. For some days, the quartered fruit lay on a blue and white dish on the windowsill of her bedroom. Then one afternoon, I watched from the kitchen window as she carried the pomegranate on its dish down the path to the kitchen garden, where with absorbed care, she buried it.

Though English gardeners have managed to persuade other exotic fruit – peaches, apricots, figs, nectarines – to produce crops far away from the heat that they long for, the pomegranate remains rare in Britain. But in 1876, the eminent Victorian gardener Canon Ellacombe, of Bitton in Gloucestershire, reported seeing a pomegranate tree in Bath with 60 ripe fruit on it. Certainly they are more likely to succeed in the south and the west than they are in the colder north. But they are compact little trees, as well as beautiful ones, happy with life in a tub, provided they are well fed and watered. Perhaps it is time to make the pomegranate a more regular sight in our gardens. And it would be the ultimate in one-upmanship, offering your own pomegranate juice to your health-freaky friends.

It's been labelled as a "superfood" because it is high in antioxidants, which are supposed to protect against heart disease and cancer. Juicing though isn't as simple as it is with an orange. First you have to whizz the seeds and pulp in a blender, then tip the whole lot into the kind of muslin bag you use to make fruit jellies and slowly let the juice drip through.

On its looks alone though, the tree could earn itself a place in gardens. It has showy red flowers up to two inches across. With us, they bloom sporadically from June to September, the flowers glowing among the broad, shiny green leaves. These colour yellow before falling in late autumn. In its native homes, Iran and Afghanistan, pomegranates are generally evergreen. Here, they sensibly drop their leaves, which gives them a better chance of getting through our winters.

It's not the cold they mind so much here (they'll survive winter temperatures of -7C) as the wet. And they are used to hotter summers, which ripen the wood and increase the chance of the tree flowering and fruiting. Here, success is more likely if the tree is protected by a south- or west-facing wall. But they are self-fertile, which means you only need one, and not fussy about soil, though they prefer it to be slightly on the alkaline side. If you are growing a pomegranate in a tub, use John Innes No 3 compost with plenty of crocks at the bottom of the container. They hate to have wet feet.

The type most commonly offered at nurseries and garden centres here is Punica granatum var. 'Nana', a dwarf variety that has small fruit not worth the trouble of eating. You need to look for edible types such as 'Fina Tendral' offered by David Hamer, a young Kentish grower. He can supply three rooted cuttings of 'Fina Tendral' for £30. These will be about 15-20cm tall and he recommends growing them on in pots with protection during winter until they are about 90cm tall. Then you can risk planting them outside.

They need very little pruning. They are, anyway, naturally small trees; even after 10 years, they will be scarcely more than three metres tall. This natural compactness makes them an ideal choice for small town gardens. There, too, they are likely to get the warmth they need to provide their lustrous fruits. The best table decoration I've seen this year was made of pomegranates, split in half and scattered down the centre of a long table, twisted through with ivy, early twigs of hazel and gilded pears. It was magic.

Punica granatum 'Fina Tendral' is available from David's Exotic Plants, Canterbury, Kent CT2 0QH, £30 plus p&p for three rooted cuttings (mail order only). For information about larger pomegranate trees call David Hamer on 01227 711897 or visit