Drive the roads of the Valley floor of Northern California this time of year and the world stretches out in front of you as though it goes on forever, as though you can see forever. Dun colored fields move in the early fall winds – the grasslands and hills are waiting for the sigh of fall rains. Somewhere along a small winding road between Orland and Corning, barns and fields are punctuated by the small rise of a hillside lined with rows of smallish rounded green trees. And this time of year, these trees are bent with the weight of their round red fruits.
Some of the leathery red exteriors of the pomegranates are cracked open revealing an abundance of tempting, glossy red fruits inside – the sheen of these small interior fruits hinting at the juice for which the whole pomegranates are prized.
In 2004, when Eric and Suzanne Wunsch, both in health care related careers, decided to move their five children from a Northern California town life to a Northern California country life, it was the sweet, delicious and healthful juice extracted from pomegranates that led to their decision to grow them. With the whole family helping, they planted their first acre of pomegranates over Halloween that first year of their now 9-years-old and 7-acres-of-pomegranates-endeavor known as Hillside Pomegranates.
Pomegranates are a long-standing crop fruit in Northern California, first introduced to the region by colonists in the 1700s, for good reason. Native to what is now Iran, once established, pomegranates (Punica granatum derived from the Latin meaning apple with many seeds) thrive in hot dry summer conditions and Mediterranean winter-wet conditions.
“They are incredibly easy to grow in our area,” says Suzanne. Hillside Pomegranates irrigates their trees once a week in summer and they apply no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Pomegranates can take moderate frosts and are naturally pest and disease resistant. The biggest worry is to harvest them right before or once they start to crack and before the fall rains start in our area. If the fall rains come early and then the fruit cracks, they will develop an interior rot that ruins the fruit and juice.
They prune lightly for tip die-back, to remove suckers at the base and for overall shape in fall and winter after the trees have lost their leaves. Pomegranates can be grown as large shrubs, or limned up to be small, sculptural trees. I have seen a lovely specimen trained to be a high hedge archway through which you could walk into a formal walled garden. Pomegranates make nice additions to the home garden and if you are considering adding some to your garden for fruit production, there are some good dwarf choices, and while the trees are partially self fertile, two trees will likely produce better fruit set.
Pomegranates are an ancient fruit and have been cultivated in the Middle East and Asia as long as recorded time. Their rich history stems back to references in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology as well as multiple references in the holy texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Pomegranates have long been held as symbols of knowledge, fertility and prosperity, and some scholars indicate that the “apple” eaten by Adam in Eve in Paradise was in fact most likely a pomegranate, not an apple as we know them.
Technically of course, when you open a pomegranate you are seeing its arils – the juice and flesh covered seeds – inside. The Hillside Pomegranate trees had harvest-able fruit the first year after they were planted, but the crop gets heavier each year. While there are many cultivars, Hillside Pomegranates grows just two “Wonderful” and “Angel Red”, which matures a little earlier, extending the season for the farm to September – December, and produces a juice that is a little sweeter and a little lighter.
For several years now, Hillside Pomegranates has hosted a season-long “squeeze your own” option and visitors come out to the farm to squeeze gallons of the juice on a non-electric press designed by Eric. To taste freshly squeezed pomegranate juice if you have only ever tried the store-bought variety, is to taste a whole different thing indeed – it is amazingly refreshing, filling, delicious.
Suzanne also offers pre-squeezed juice (a little more expensive), as well as pomegranate jellies. “We have some families on a gallon-a-week through the season subscription and we are looking into a pick-your-own option at the farm as well.” In November Hillside Pomegranates will host a Pomegranate Festival – look for details on their website, http://hillsidepoms.com, or Facebook page.
Hillside Pomegranates composts all of their pomegranate rinds and works them back into the soil of the farm for better tilth. The fruit flies, flies, bees and wasps feast on the remains of a pomegranate squeezing day.
There are many many pomegranate growers in the North State. Find one and celebrate the season by drinking to your own health and the health and abundance of our small family farms and region.
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.