Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A royal fruit: the pomegranate

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII (1862-1863)
A royal fruit. The pomegranate
by Elizabeth Eiloart


A ROYAL FRUIT.
THE POMEGRANATE.

In days when fortune-telling, so far from being under the ban of a prosaic Police Act, was actually esteemed as a highly creditable profession, a lovely Scythian girl, seeking to know what Fate had in store for her, was assured by the soothsayers, whom she consulted, that she was destined, one day, to wear a crown. Happening soon after to be seen by Bacchus, the susceptible god became deeply enamoured of her, and she, thinking that an alliance, even though an irregular one, with an Olympian divinity, would assuredly prove the most effectual means of bringing the prophecy to pass, suffered herself to be beguiled by his ready but delusive promises. Too soon, alas! the fickle deity, wearied of her and forsook her, and the hapless maid, finding her dreams of love and ambition changed into a sad reality of tarnished name and fading beauty, could not survive the change, and, ere long, died a victim of disappointment and despair. Even Bacchus has his serious moments, and when at length he heard of the ruin he had wrought, touched with late remorse, he metamorphosed the dead maiden into a tree, placing upon the fruit it bore the crown he had promised but denied to her while living. Such, according to the French poet, Nicholas Rapin, was the origin of the pomegranate: the persistent calyx of the blossom of this tree not only remaining, as in the case of the apple, gooseberry, &c., as a component part of the fruit, but, increasing in size after the petals have fallen, its tube becomes the outer rind which surrounds the berries within, while the segments, surmounting the fruit with a circle of sharply-toothed points, form thus no inapt resemblance to a crown. This ensign of sovereignty being however a quite useless part of the fruit, led probably to the plant being adopted as the emblem of democracy, and also to its being chosen by Anne of Austria as her especial device, the accompanying motto proudly announcing, “My worth is not in my crown;” while the French, in the Isle of St. Vincent, put their comment upon this fructal diadem into the form of a riddle, asking

Quelle est la reine
Qui porte son royaume dans son sein?

The tree seems to have been abundant in ancient Egypt, and to have been a favourite delicacy of the immigrant Israelites, their complaint against the desert into which Moses led them having comprised the charge that it was “no place of pomegranates,” while the answering promise with which Moses sought to soothe the murmurers conveyed an explicit assurance that this fruit would form a part of the delights of the land to which they were journeying. In Canaan, indeed, it proved to be one of the commonest fruits; several places were named after it, “Rimmon,” in consequence of its specially abounding in their vicinity; and the inspired artists, who made the ministry of the beautiful a part of the service of religion, availed themselves largely of its elegant form in the ornamentation of priestly vestment and hallowed fane. Nor was it altogether overlooked by the heathen, for in the Isle of Eubœa stood formerly a statue of Juno, holding in one hand a sceptre, and in the other a pomegranate; and it was reckoned, too, among the growths of the Elysian fields; while the legend which commemorated its having a habitat there, and told how the sorrowing Ceres, seeking to win back her beloved Proserpine from the dismal shades whither she had been whirled by the Plutonian “Cœlebs in search of a wife,” was forced at last to resign her to her grim ravisher, because his victim had for one moment so far forgotten her grief as to eat a few grains of this favourite fruit, invested it with tender and sacred associations in the minds of the ancients. By the Romans it was called the “Carthaginian Apple,” having been brought to them, in the time of Sylla, from the neighbourhood of the renowned city of Carthage, where it greatly abounded, and whence, too, it is believed to have derived its botanical name, punica,[1] the ordinary appellation, pomegranate, tracing its etymology to the words pomum granatum, or seeded apple, alluding to its structure, which is very peculiar, combining the characteristics of several fruits, from each of which it differs greatly in other particulars. Externally viewed, its roundish form and adherent calyx would seem to identify it with the pomes; but then this outer case, instead of being eatable flesh, is only a dry leathery coat, something similar to that of the orange; yet is the transparent pulp within not collected into large masses, but a small portion of it surrounds each separate seed, as in the case of the gooseberry, only that here a thin enveloping skin is also added, forming each into a distinct little berry, of oval shape, but about the size and colour of a red currant, and regularly arranged in a double tier of compartments, divided horizontally by a sort of diaphragm, the upper part consisting of from five to nine cells, the walls of which, whereto the seeds adhere, extend from the sides of the fruit towards its centre; while in the lower range, which is smaller and comprises but three cells, irregular processes arise from the bottom.

In the wild kind the juice of these berries is very acid; but in the best cultivated varieties it is sweet and of a most agreeable flavour, while a medium or sub-acid sort is also commonly grown in gardens. In Aleppo, where the fruit ripens abundantly in August, the seeds, according to Russell’s account of that place, form an important article of culinary use, the first kind being used as verjuice, and the others brought to table in the form of conserve or syrup, or are taken out of their leathery coats and served on little plates, uncooked, but strewn with sugar and rose-water. Wine, too, is sometimes extracted from them, a use which seems to have been known to the ancient Jews, as the name “Gath Rimmon,” given to a spot in Canaan, signifies the “press of pomegranates;” and Solomon, too, explicitly promises the bride he wooes, “I will cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranates.”

The simply expressed juice is so refreshing that it is considered superior even to that of the orange, in cases of fever; while Lord Bacon recommends it (preferring, however, the wine if attainable) as very efficacious in liver complaints. It is common in Barbary, where, Shaw says, it often weighs a pound and measures three or four inches in diameter; and a famous kind, bearing seedless berries, is grown in gardens near Cabul in India, where, too, the natives, as we are told by Boyle, employ the bark of the root to expel the tape-worm, a purpose to which it was applied so long since as in the days of Dioscorides. The flowers and the rind of the fruit are also sometimes used medicinally, both being powerfully astringent, while from the latter it is said ink can be made equal to that produced from galls; and either from it, or from the bark of the tree, according to different authorities, a red or yellow dye is extracted, still in use in some parts of Germany and elsewhere, to stain leather in imitation of morocco.

Early introduced into Southern Europe, it is supposed that Granada in Spain owes its name to this fruit having been planted there when first brought from Africa; and the idea is countenanced by the fact of a split pomegranate being displayed in the arms of that province. About Genoa and Nice it is grown in a bushy form, and hedges are commonly formed of it, though in many places it is trained to a height of fifteen or twenty feet, assuming the shape of a tree with a pruned stem six or eight feet high, surmounted by a spreading head similar in character to the hawthorn. The slender branches, some of which are armed with sharp thorns, are clothed with opposite leaves about three inches long, of very bright green, and bear at their extremities, either singly or in bunches of three or four together, the large and beautiful blossoms specially characterised by their thick red calyx, and five to seven petals of bright scarlet surrounding a crowd of stamens. These flowers appear in succession during the summer mouths from June to September, the fruit ripening about October, and sometimes hanging on the tree till the next spring or summer.

This plant was introduced into England during the reign of Henry VIII.: it was cultivated by Gerard, and is mentioned among the trees which fruited in the orange-house of Charles I. It will, however, grow well here in the open air, bearing its beautiful flowers in profusion, though but rarely ripening its fruit; and, the former becoming thus the principal object of the cultivator, the kind most usually grown is the double-flowered variety, which is barren, but bears large red, yellow, or variegated blossoms, and attains sometimes a very great size,—one trained against the walls of Fulham Palace, and supposed to be the largest in England, being at least forty feet high and fifty feet broad. In France the tree thrives well and lives long. Risso mentions that some planted at Versailles were two or three centuries old; but there they will not bear exposure to the open air during early spring.

A dwarf species of pomegranate, bearing very small flowers and fruit, is indigenous to South America and the West Indies, but the ordinary sort has also been long since introduced there; and, in the latter place, produces larger and better fruit than in Europe; while a resident at Tacna in Peru, in a recent communication addressed to the London Horticultural Society, mentions that all the hedges in that part of the country are composed of this plant, and are covered in the season with abundance of beauful fruit; of which, however, no use is made. It has also been introduced into the States of North America; and though in the colder provinces it requires to be grown on espaliers, and protected in the winter, it flourishes so well in the South, that, were it popularised, the Northern markets might be amply supplied thence; but, a taste for it having never been cultivated, no demand has yet arisen.

In the “Natural System of Botany,” the pomegranate is generally placed among the myrtle-blooms, though Lindley is inclined to separate it from them, on account of the singular structure of the fruit, which is almost individually peculiar. It, however, reckons among its near relatives the delicious guava, and the rose-apple of the East, as well as the pimento, or allspice, and the clove.

Asterisk.


  1. This name, however, is thought by some to be derived from puniceus (scarlet), in allusion to the colour of the flower.