By Myriam Hu
In the late spring and early summer months, when I stroll along the paths in The Huntington Shakespeare Garden, my attention is attracted to the beautiful pomegranate trees with lovely, bright blossoms popping out from the new shiny, bright green leaves. One by the bridge 'Wonderful' has bright orange-red very double blossoms; another pomegranate tree, which is an ornamental, located at the southwest part of the Shakespeare Garden has apricot colored flowers; the third one, an ornamental also, with double orange-red blooms is found on the northeast side of this garden. The only edible fruit-bearing pomegranate tree in the Shakespeare Garden is the one by the bridge.
There are two species of deciduous pomegranate shrubs or small trees of Southeast Europe and South Asia. The pomegranate shrub can grow into a tree 15 to 20 feet in height. The undulated, shining green leaves are 2-4 inches long and tapered at both ends. Large orange-red flowers are found on most fruit bearing cultivars. White, yellow, orange-red, and apricot flowers are seen as non-fruiting ornanmentals.
One species, Punica granatum, native of Southwest Asia, has been cultivated for centuries in hot, arid lands for its refreshing fruit and as an ornanmental. In the United States it thrives best in the hot desert valleys of California and the Southwest (Zone 9). The pomegranate was introduced to this area by Spanish settlers in 1769. Although pomegranates can be grown throughout the tropics and subtropics, they only produce good crops under semi-arid conditions where heat accompanies the ripening season, and abundant water is available at the roots. The species does best on deep, rather heavy loams, and produces fruit at three or four years of age. Pomegranates are picked before maturity, since they are liable to split if left on the tree. There are several cultivars, which includes 'Paper-Shell', 'Spanish Ruby', and 'Wonderful'.
Ancient Greek pomegranate pins
Pomegranates have been cultivated since ancient times. Once known as "the Carthage apple", it was so named after the ancient groves of pomegranate in the city of Carthage. The genus name Punica is from the Roman name for the region around the ancient city of Carthage, in Latin the Punic region of North Africa.
In the ancient and medieval worlds, pomegranates symbolyized birth and death, being itself capable of bleeding. It was frequently associated with maidens and maiden-goddesses.
In Greek mythology the story of Persephone concerns the abduction of the beautiful daughter of Demeter, goddess of harvest and fertility; Persephone’s tale is the reason behind the sweetness of spring and the bitterness of winter. When Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the underworld by Hades, the grim god of the underworld, she would only be released if she would eat from a pomegranate. By eating just a few seeds she would always be connected to Hades' realm. For a third of the year Persephone must stay in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the year she returns to her mother. When Demeter and her daughter are together, the earth flourishes with vegetation; but for the rest of each year, when Persephone returns to the underworld, the earth once again becomes a barren realm.
It was the fruit of Kore the Maid, or Persphone, who even as an underworld divinity was beautiful and kind. In Christian iconographic paintings, the Virgin Mary often holds Persephone's pomegranate, symbolizing Mary's authority over the death of her son, much as Athena in her dark or gorgon-like moods upheld a pomegranate in her left hand.
William Shakespeare mentioned pomegranates in his play, Romeo and Juliet. The following scene opened when Romeo, after their secret wedding, was spending the night in Juliet's room. The nightingale woke them anouncing that it was time for Romeo to leave before daybreak.
"It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pier'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale." Act III.V.2
One wonders, during the time that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, if the apple that Eve gave to Adam to eat could have been a pomegranate. Therefore, the pomegranate might be the forbidden fruit.
Myriam Hu, Rose/Shakespeare, Camellia, and Herb Gardens Docent