A biologist in California is striving to bring his grandfather's love of colorful pomegranates into commercial production.
Chances are that you've heard of Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Honeycrisp – just a few of the dozens of apple varieties available at the supermarket. But how about Ambrosia, Eversweet, or Phoenicia? Not ringing a bell? That's because they are pomegranates. As of now, a single type of pomegranate – the Wonderful – dominates the fruit aisle, accounting for 90 to 95 percent of the U.S. commercial pomegranate crop.
But if UC Riverside graduate student John Chater (pictured below) has his way, some of the world's most beautiful pomegranates could find their way into commercial production – and that would be beyond wonderful (literally).
As it turns out, pomegranate whispering runs in the family. John Chater's grandfather, S. John Chater, came to the United States from Lebanon and brought with him a love of pomegranates. Although he worked at a hospital, not in agriculture, his passion for pomegranates earned him a cult following in California for developing new varieties of pomegranates.
"I used to go over there and he would make me taste different types of pomegranates," the younger Chater tells NPR. "When I was a kid, I thought everybody had a grandfather like this."
If only. But thankfully, since we all didn't have grandfathers like that, Chater has devoted his work to better understanding the commercial potential of little-known pomegranate varieties. As a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University, Chater has been testing different varieties selected from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository – which, remarkably, includes a few developed by his grandfather.
As of now, they have planted 12 pomegranate varieties, 15 trees of each, to gauge their establishment, flowering and fruiting, usefulness to growers, and desirability to consumers, notes the University. Ten of the varieties they are evaluating are edible – Parfianka, Desertnyi, Wonderful, Ambrosia, Eversweet, Haku Botan, Green Globe, Golden Globe, Phoenicia and Lofani. The other two are ornamental – Ki Zakuro and Nochi Shibori – and have carnation-like blooms that could be attractive to the flower industry.
The goal? That consumers might go fruit shopping and have a spread of pomegranates from which to choose – ones that vary in sweetness, texture, and color. The seeds of the varieties on trial run the gamut from green to yellow to pink to orange to red to nearly purple.
Aside from the aesthetic splendor of a rainbow of coruscating pomegranate seeds and the foodie indulgence of new flavors, I'd think it would also be a great safety measure for the pomegranate industry. One only needs to remember the problems that bananas have faced; with only one cultivar as the main crop, the whole industry can be wiped out if disease strikes. Having more variety growing commercially seems like it can only be a good thing.
As for now pomegranates remain a bit of a mystery to many, still pretty exotic and maybe a little confusing – given their bright flavor, gorgeous jewels of fruit, and impressive nutrients and antioxidants, that's a shame. But many under-appreciated foods have found eventual stardom, and I'm guessing this might be just the push the pomegranate needs to make fruits like Ambrosia, Eversweet, and Phoenicia household names.
See Chater in the field and some of his pretty pomegranates in the video below:
You can read more about the work at UC Riverside.