Friday, July 31, 2009

Immortal Fruit

Punica granatum 'Nana' Detail from the Unicorn Tapestry showing a pomegranate Punica granatum

Above, from left to right: A potted dwarf pomegranate flowering and fruiting now; a detail of a pomegranate tree depicted in The Unicorn Is Attacked; a full-sized pomegranate ripening on a tree set in the ground in Bonnefont Garden. Pomegranates are deciduous; the leaves turn a bright yellow before falling in October. By the Middle Ages, the exotic eastern fruit had long been cultivated in southern Europe. Although it is not cold-hardy, pomegranate has been grown in the gardens of The Cloisters from their beginnings.

I went down into the nut orchard,
to look at the blossoms of the
valley,
To see whether the vines had budded,
whether the pomegranates were
in bloom.
Before I was aware, my fancy set me
in a chariot beside my prince.

Song of Solomon 6:11 and 12 (Revised Standard Version)


Although the famously stylized pomegranate tree depicted in The Unicorn in Captivity at The Cloisters may be the most notable example in the Museum’s collection, many hours could be spent pomegranate-hunting in the Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, Greek and Roman, Medieval, and Islamic galleries of the Met. Pomegranates can be found not only in European painting and decorative arts, but also in Persian, Indian, and Chinese artworks and artifacts. No fruit in the annals of ethnobotany has enjoyed a longer or more storied career.

Pomegranate has been prized as a refreshment, a medicament, and a symbol of  fecundity and the hope of eternal life for thousands of years. Its many seeds, which are red, juicy, and abundant, have made it an emblem of fertility and regeneration in both the east and the west. It has been exploited as a source of erotic metaphors and similes in love poetry, deposited in tombs and carved on funerary monuments, and employed as both an aid to procreation and a contraceptive. Recent scientific investigations have established the presence of estrogenic compounds in pomegranate, and scientific studies of its effects on sperm count and testosterone in laboratory animals seem to support its ancient reputation.

In traditional societies, the mythological and religious significance of the pomegranate can’t be readily be separated from its value as a food or its health-giving properties. The economic outlook for pomegranate as a crop plant is so rosy that it has been proposed as a substitute for opium cultivation in Afghanistan. We are  in the midst of a pomegranate craze  in the United States; extraordinary health benefits are being claimed for the fruit, and marketing campaigns are taking full advantage of the world’s stock of pomegranate lore. Lynda Resnick, the Pomegranate Princess profiled in The New Yorker magazine last year (see article), and her husband Stewart, co-owner of PomWonderful, have stocked shelves across the country with the bottled juice of California pomegranates. As of the spring of 2008, the Resnicks had invested $23 million investigating pomegranate’s effects on a host of medical conditions, and had earmarked another $7 million for additional clinical trials in order to support their claims for their product.

These claims may now exceed even those made for the therapeutic virtues of pomegranate in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Greek herbalist Dioscorides carefully explicated the uses of all parts of the pomegranate in the first book of his De Materia Medica, including the flowers, the rind of the fruit, the seeds, and the juice pressed from them.  Pomegranate flowers  have an independent career in medieval herbals as a medicament known as balaustia.

Manuscripts of the medieval health handbook known as Tacuinum Sanitatis discriminate between sweet and sour pomegranates. The sweet granata dulcia, considered to be warmer in action than the cooler, moister fruit of the sour pomegranate, was thought to be good for procreation. The sour pomegranate, granata acetosa, was famous as a refrigerant, i.e., a medicament used to cool the body, and it remained a sovereign remedy for the thirst induced by fever for centuries. This property was applied not only to physical fever but to its spiritual counterpart, the heat of sin and the soul’s thirst for the Holy Spirit. (See “Holy Medicine and Diseases of the Soul: Henry of Lancaster and Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines“.)

More—much more—to come, but in small doses, over the course of time.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (8)

  1. sigrid goldiner Says:

    A wonderful large Holly Bush has just appeared in the Trie Cloister. I wonder if this is a male or female holly? Also do you think it will bear red berries next year. Did holly berries have a use apart from decoration?

  2. Lynda Resnick Says:

    Thank you so much for the beautiful article on my favorite fruit. Pomegranates are a life force in so many ways; science indicates that they may ward off the rise of PSA in men, great for circulation and reducing plaque in the arteries etc. Alas, we have seen no evidence of pomegranate consumption increasing sperm count. I must say it does seem however as though many of our young female executives are with child but there is no scientific proof that poms work to increase estrogen either. We do know that drinking 8 ounces of pomegranate juice daily can aid in erectile dysfunction.

    I would like to add we don’t do scientific research “to support our claims” we make our medical claims only after our results are published in peer reviewed scientific journals. To your health - all the best, Lynda Resnick

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Greetings, Lynda—

    As you know from your own researches, there are so many aspects of pomegranate history, cultivation, and appreciation to explore that it is impossible to investigate them all in one post. The reasons for the stylistic discrepancies between the pomegranate trees represented in the third and seventh of the Unicorn Tapestries here at The Cloisters, and the full significance of the pomegranate’s presence in these botanically fascinating works of medieval art, are open questions.

    I do hope to return to your favorite fruit in future posts. In the meantime, ‘Life, health, prosperity!’ as the ancient Egyptians would say.

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Sigrid—

    The holly tree planted in the bay in the northwest corner of Trie garden is a female. I am very happy to be able to replace the venerable specimen once grown there, which was lost some years ago. This is the true English holly, Ilex acquifolium. Since English holly approaches the limits of its reliable cold-hardiness north of New York City, it has largely been replaced in the nursery trade in the northeastern U.S. by a group of cultivars known collectively as Ilex x meservae, crosses between various species including English and Chinese hollies. That is why it has taken us some time to locate a suitable replacement.

    As you know, holly has great significance in medieval folklore and iconography and is a dominant species in the landscape of the Unicorn Tapestries. The symbolic significance is derived not only from the beautiful, lustrous evergreen leaves, but also from the abundant red berries borne in winter. Holly is dioecious, i.e., there are both male and female individuals. Both male and female plants bear small, creamy-white blossoms, but the red berries are borne only by the female. The flowers that will appear on our tree next May must be pollinated (by bees) in order to set fruit. The male of the species is not as striking—females are planted for show, and the male is planted in a less conspicuous position nearby in order to provide the necessary pollen.

    Horticultural opinion differs as to the degree of proximity required, and some consider a distance of up to two miles to be adequate, although a shorter distance would obviously be more certain to produce the desired result. I haven’t yet found a male pollinator for our female (there are a few green berries to be found on the tree at the present writing, so I am quite sure of the sex). However, I believe there are other mature English hollies in Fort Tryon Park which do berry, and hope that there may be already be a male within striking distance. Otherwise, I will need to plant one of our own.

    Holly did have practical applications as well as symbolic and magical significance; the fine, hard-grained wood was used in marquetry, but was considered too dense to be suitable for driving cattle—it bruised their flesh. Holly boughs were given to sheep as a winter fodder. The fermented bark was used to make birdlime. Maude Grieve notes that the leaves, berries, and bark have all been used medicinally. However, Jerry Stannard, an authority on plant medicine in the Middle Ages, says that holly does not frequently appear in medieval herbals.

  5. Jennifer Kingsley Says:

    Hi Deirdre,

    In your post on the pomegranate you mention that the picture on the right is from a pomegranate set in the ground in Bonnefont and the holly tree is obviously also in the ground. Yet it sounds like from what you’re writing that both have a hard time in our winter - the holly being at the limit of its hardiness, and the pomegranate not being cold-hardy. Do you do anything in particular to help protect these then through the winter and are there other plants in the ground that are also particularly difficult to maintain in our climate? (I know many of the potted plants are tender and brought indoors).

  6. Carol Schuler Says:

    Did gardener’s hybridize plants in the Middle Ages? If not, when did the practice of hybridizing begin?
    Were attempts made to increase the size or any other characteristics of fruits? Can this be done by grafting, or are other techniques utilized?

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Jennifer—

    The pomegranate is a far more tender species than the holly. According to the RHS Index of Garden Plants, it is cold-hardy only to USDA Zone 9. (The gardens of The Cloisters are categorized as Zone 7). For a zone map of Europe, go to GardenWeb’s Hardiness Zone Map of Europe—you might want to compare what you find there to a zone map of New York State.

    The pomegranate is a deciduous tree—the leaves will turn a butter-yellow and drop in October. Even in a sheltered spot, it would not be likely to survive our winters. Our pomegranates are removed either to a greenhouse kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the winter, or put in a dark, unheated storage space once the leaves have fallen. Once those in cold storage break dormancy in early spring, they are returned to the light.

    Pomegranates were grown in England in the Middle Ages, although they could not be brought to fruit there. (They were given protection, although I have no details as to the methods used—I would assume that they were mulched with straw.) Albertus Magnus (and Piero de Crescenzi after him) recommended the pomegranate as a shade tree in pleasure gardens; their inclusion in the hunting park represented in the Unicorn Tapestries, side by side with native species like the holly, may not be an invention. Whether or not the pomegranate could have survived in a park in the lowlands of northern Europe, it would not have borne fruit as the trees in the tapestries do, any more than those grown in England did.

    The holly is hardy to Zone 6, and we have no difficulty growing it here without any special protection, although the bay in Trie Garden is a sheltered site. The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, which I hope to establish in the bay opposite the the holly is hardy to Zone 7, but it does suffer some winter damage. This winter it will be mulched with salt hay and wrapped with horticultural fleece.

    Figs are normally given protection when grown in the ground in New York City, but we planted a new variety called ‘Chicago Hardy’ in the spring of 2008. (Mature specimens have been known to survive without being wrapped.) This cultivar is said to be hardy to Zone 4, and it wintered over in Bonnefont garden without difficulty, even though it was a very young plant.

  8. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Carol—

    Medieval gardeners didn’t hybridize plants, because hybridization—in the sense of a deliberate crossing of plants (whether closely or distantly related) through human agency—depends on a knowledge of plant sexuality that postdates the Middle Ages. The great eighteenth-century taxonomist Carl Linnaeus investigated plant sexuality, including spontaneous hybridization (some species, such as mints, freely hybridize of their own accord); hybridization within a species was also demonstrated by Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. These early researchers were more interested in documenting the sexuality of plants than in producing garden-worthy new crosses. The subsequent history of hybridization as a method of creating new plant forms is a very broad topic that lies outside our focus on the history of medieval plants and gardens.

    However, what botanists term “selection” is a very ancient form of plant breeding. The domestication of grains and other crops in the Neolithic period depended on selection, and medieval gardeners did keep sports, as spontaneously occuring variations in a natural population are called, going by propagating them vegetatively. Grafting is a very old method of propagating fruit trees, and was practiced assiduously in the Middle Ages, as it had been in antiquity. If a tree produced a larger or more flavorful or earlier-ripening crop, slips of that particular form might be selected and propagated by grafting them. The Roman natural historian Pliny knew some twenty-five different varieties of apple, at least some of which continued to be grown in the Middle Ages. As apples do not come true from seed, and exhibit a great deal of variation, a particular form, once selected, must be grafted onto a parent stock in order to keep it going.

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