I enjoyed pomegranates throughout my youth in the town of Lemon Grove. Each fall, our family had a tradition of encircling and devouring the fruit of an old pomegranate tree which grew in the garden of my great grandmother. Surrounded by siblings and cousins, we delighted in picking and eating pomegranates so ripe they were splitting. No wonder I look forward to starting pomegranate trees and sharing them with others.
Thirty years ago at our home in Ramona, my wife and I planted a bare root pomegranate tree given to us by a friend. Soon I realized we should plant more pomegranate trees as they were well suited to this area where intense summer heat can last for months. I remembered from Dr. Hartmann’s plant propagation class at UC Davis that pomegranates, like other Mediterranean fruit (olives, grapes, figs), were propagated by hardwood cuttings, or sections of dormant stems. Being short on cash I decided to patiently start several more pomegranate trees from hardwood cuttings. Patiently, I say, because it requires at least two extra years to produce fruit by planting hardwood cuttings compared to planting purchased bare root fruit trees. We took pleasure in watching these hardwood cuttings develop shoots and eventually grow into mature productive trees. We now have dozens of pomegranate trees which we have started from dormant shoots that we collected and planted ourselves.
Each winter when all the leaves have fallen from this deciduous tree, I create hardwood cuttings from the numerous suckers, or new shoots, which grow from the base of our trees. The pomegranate has a strong tendency to produce suckers from its base and trunk. Because of these numerous suckers, a pomegranate tree without annual training and pruning naturally develops into a large shrub. These suckers are perfect for hardwood cuttings in that they are straight, vigorous, and have plenty of buds, or new growing points. With my hand shears, I cut them about twelve inches long and plant them eleven inches deep to prevent them from drying. The next winter I can dig them up as bare root trees and plant them in their permanent locations. If kept cool and moist, newly collected cuttings can be planted weeks later.
Early on, I learned that all hardwood cuttings must be planted right side up or they will not grow new roots or shoots. As a university student of agriculture, I worked one summer establishing a vineyard in Potter Valley, California. My task one day was to plant rows of hardwood cuttings, one to each stake which would permanently support the vine. The next morning, the vineyard manager grumbled, “Hey schoolboy, you planted your cuttings upside down! Plant them right side up.” I knew they should have been planted right side up but I found it difficult to tell which end was the top. The buds on grape cuttings do not necessarily point upward as in many dormant fruit tree stems. I should have been looking for the large leaf scars below the buds, where leaves had been attached the previous season. I’ve read that the probable reason for hardwood cuttings not growing upside down is that gravity affects plant growth. Even the movement of rooting hormones is affected by gravity as gravity sensing cellular components exist in plant tissue.
With pomegranate cuttings, I find that it is difficult to tell which end is up because the small buds and leaf scars are practically invisible when completely dormant. I try to see which end of the cutting is thinner, or has a smaller diameter, as that indicates to me which end to leave protruding out of the soil. Sometimes I trim the tops of hardwood cuttings at an angle as soon as I collect them to remind me later which end is up.
Unlike planting seeds, the advantage of propagating fruit trees by hardwood cuttings is that they produce offspring that are true to variety because the DNA of each cutting is an exact copy of the mother tree’s DNA. Four years ago the USDA gene repository for fruit trees located at the UC Davis Wolfskill Orchards, sent us hardwood cuttings of several varieties from their pomegranate collection. Surprised that many of the cuttings were thinner than half the diameter of a wooden pencil, we carefully planted them in a flower bed protected from our dry Santa Ana winds. Being cuttings, they developed into the same varieties as the pomegranate trees from which they were collected. One especially promising variety has soft seeds in its arils.
Young pomegranate trees propagated from hardwood cuttings can be planted in the soil, in containers, or even shipped. This year I dug up about one hundred bare root pomegranate trees that I had started last year from hardwood cuttings. Many were planted along our fence line as a future fruit bearing screen for privacy. Others were planted in containers for gifts or to trade. Bare root trees, like hardwood cuttings, can be transported great distances or planted locally in their permanent location.
From the preparation of hardwood cuttings to the planting and care of the young trees, I look forward to every step of this annual propagation cycle which, to me, includes sharing the results with others. Home-grown pomegranate trees make great gifts to those who love this unique fruit. One afternoon I delivered a tiny tree as a present to some friends. Hana, their three-year-old daughter, and I posed for a photo with the twelve-inch tree in the foreground. We now have a tradition of taking a similar photograph by their tree on her birthday. Soon a photo will show us standing in the shade of this tree, picking its shiny red fruit. Our annual photos document her development, the tree’s growth, and my aging. Perhaps someday she too will fondly recall savoring fruit from her family’s pomegranate tree; a prolific gift which emerged from a modest dormant stem.