Referred to in Greek mythology as the fruit of the dead, pomegranates are believed to have arisen from the blood of Adonis. Despite not being on the shopping lists of many Australian consumers, a small industry exists in our country.
A brief introduction to pomegranates
Pomegranates originate from western Asia in the area from Iran to northern India. The edible part of the fruit are the fleshy, bright red ‘arils’ which contain the seeds inside the hard shell, and they are both sweet and sour at the same time. They are used for spicing up both savoury and sweet dishes and also consumed as juice or as part of alcoholic beverages. Being rich in antioxidants they are often touted as a health food.
A niche industry in Australia
Being a very small industry in Australia growers have to source their own genetic material, usually from India, and propagate their own plants. Some growers consider them difficult to grow so believe it will remain a niche industry with little competition and thus maintaining its high value.
With individual fruits achieving between three and four dollars at the farm gate, it is a high value commodity which rewards those willing to take the risk and to learn how to grow them.
Experimentation on how to grow pomegranates is still taking place because successful plant husbandry techniques have yet to be confirmed in the Australian context. It is accepted that the bushes don’t like humid conditions, and although there are plantings into northern NSW and even as far north as southern Queensland, the sandy soils and semi-arid environments of southern Australia appear to hold the future for the exotic fruit. Successful farms in Sunraysia and the South Australian Mallee are in production, and coastal Western Australia around Carnarvon has some. The Goulbourn Valley in Victoria also has plantings.
Humidity is not the only challenge however, as poor soils can generate root disease and the plants quickly die if they are flooded. One grower has achieved success by planting on raised mounds to keep the root zones well drained, but this practice is not universal.
Pruning and trellising
Another consideration is whether to trellis the bushes. Although the plant can grow to several metres tall in its natural environment, two metres is a desirable maximum in a commercial orchard. Training the branches so that the fruit hangs free from potential rubbing will result in extra capital cost, but will minimise damage to the hard shell. However if the fruit is destined largely for the lower value juice market then the bushes are more likely to remain free-standing.
At what point in the early life of the plant the bush should be pruned or shaped is also a subject of contention between growers. While one grower has been happy to not touch the newly established plant and get a small high value crop inside two years, another will forego up to four years of production in order to train the plants to the desired shape for perceived future benefits. Once well established, the bushes can be mechanically pruned.
Protection for each piece of fruit
Although pruning to shape and trellising reduces the potential for skin blemishes, some producers place bags over each individual fruit to ensure it retains a clean shell. The cost of this labour intensive process can be justified with the high returns on the fresh market.
The covering bags have the added advantage of protecting from fruit flies which love pomegranates. And as the fruit is harvested between February and May, the alternative food sources for fruit fly have largely finished, making pomegranates doubly attractive to them.
Growing organically is attractive as once insecticides are introduced, particularly to combat fruit fly or white fly, an infestation of mealy bugs is almost certain. So using the physical barriers of bags is the preferred method over chemicals. And as weeds do not grow beneath the bushes when planted in high densities, the need to use herbicides is also removed.
No special skills are required to harvest pomegranates. Although some farms prefer to snip the stems, most pluck the fruit to reduce damage to the skins from other pieces in the bin.
As with all exotic fruits, the farmers that grow them take the risks associated with being outside mainstream systems and knowledge. In the case of pomegranates, it appears for those that get it right the rewards can be high.