Immortal Fruit » Detail from the Unicorn Tapestry showing a pomegranate

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Detail from the Unicorn Tapestry showing a pomegranate

Above: Pomegranate tree in fruit and flower, a detail from the lower left corner of the tapestry The Unicorn Is Attacked. Learn more about the Unicorn Tapestries.

The pomegranate in the lower left corner of this tapestry is much more naturalistically depicted than the famously stylized representation in The Unicorn in Captivity, where the fruits are unmistakably pomegranates but the tree that bears them in no way resembles Punica granatum.

Many of the fruit trees depicted in the tapestries were familiar species long introduced and acclimated in northern Europe before the Middle Ages. (See previous posts on quince and medlar). The pomegranate was a tender Eastern exotic, whose culture was addressed in Ibn Basal’s Book of Agriculture and other medieval Arabic treatises. The pomegranate may have been brought from Damascus to the gardens of Andalusia, where it was to thrive, in the tenth century.

Pomegranates were well known to the Greeks and Romans, and classical authorities like Palladius had given advice on their cultivation, but the species could only be grown altogether successfully in a Mediterranean climate. Nevertheless, the great Dominican theologian and natural historian Albertus Magnus recommended the pomegranate as one of the agreeable and health-giving trees suitable for shading and beautifying pleasure gardens, advice that was reiterated by Piero de Crescenzi in the Liber Ruralium Commodorum, the most important treatise on agriculture and horticulture produced in the European Middle Ages.

The pomegranate was grown outdoors in England by another Dominican—the naturalist, gardener, botanist, and herbalist friar Henry Daniel, who described both the tree and the difficulties in growing it in a northern climate. Daniel wrote that the pomegranate “groweth among us gladly and in plenty, but it beareth not,” despite the trouble taken: “It will have all the sun and covering from every frost and snow and cold air.” The tree was planted in the pleasure gardens of the wealthy and powerful, as well as in experimental gardens like Henry Daniel’s, and its fruits were imported in considerable quantities by nobility and royalty (John Harvey, Medieval Gardens, 1981).

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