The pomegranate (Punica granatum), in the Lythraceae family, is a shrub or small tree from the Mediterranean and Middle East, widely grown in subtropical and warm temperate regions (zone 8 and above) throughout the world. In North America, it’s essentially a plant of the South, but in Europe, specimens have been known to grow and thrive, although often with winter damage, as far north as London and Paris.
In colder climates (prolonged exposure to temperatures below 14 ° F/-10 ° C can kill it), the standard-sized pomegranate is rarely grown. Instead, the dwarf pomegranate (P. granatum nana) is the more popular subject … but either as a houseplant or a patio plant that has to be brought indoors over the winter. The dwarf variety is widely grown in warmer climes too, but as ornamental, not a fruit tree
Big Things, Small Package
The dwarf pomegranate is natural variant of the species, discovered in the wild over 200 years ago. It differs from the standard pomegranate by its much smaller, lanceolate, glossy leaves (about 1 inch/2.5 cm long), but especially its fruits, which are only the size of a golf ball rather than the size of a really big apple. The shrub itself is not that dwarf though. It can easily reach 6 feet (2 m) if left unpruned. However, it responds well to pruning and so it generally kept between 2 and 3 feet (60 and 90 cm) in height.
In warm temperate climates, the dwarf pomegranate is deciduous: its leaves turn yellow, then drop off in late fall. Indoors and in the tropics, it usually keeps its foliage year round or, if it drops off, it regrows within a few weeks.
The flowers are orange-red, with crinkled petals. The petals only last a few days, but the flower seems to go on and on, because the calyx (the star-shaped crown of thick “leaves” behind the flower) and ovary are almost the same color as the flower, so you get the impression it is still in bloom long after the flowering has stopped. The flower/fruit matures slowly, remaining on the plant for six months or more, although by the end, it no longer looks as much like a flower, but has rounded out and is quite clearly a fruit. Theoretically, this plant blooms in summer, but in fact, indoor plants kept under warm conditions may bloom at just about any time of the year.
The round fruits are fully red a maturity, but they’re not terribly good to eat, without the sweet flavor of standard pomegranate. Besides, to be honest, there is very little to munch on! As a result, the fruits of the dwarf pomegranate are essentially considered to be ornamental rather than edible.
The dwarf pomegranate is fairly easy to grow. Not a beginner’s plant exactly, but one a moderately experienced gardener can easily handle. Think “Mediterranean climate” and you’ll get the picture. Full summer sun and extreme heat are not a problem, but it does appreciate a cooler winter.
It can be grown indoors all year, but normally it’s put outside for the summer on a patio or balcony where it can truly profit from full sunlight, then it’s brought back indoors when nights start to get distinctly chilly in the fall.
The great advantage of placing it outdoors in summer is that it will be visited by insects (and, in the New World, by hummingbirds!) that ensure pollination. If you grow it indoors all year-round, you’ll have to pollinate the flowers manually if you want fruits to form. That’s easy enough to do. Soon after the flowers open, when stamens are visible, just lightly dab the flowers with a small paintbrush or a cotton swab, moving from flower to flower.
Water as necessary so the soil never dries out entirely, but don’t leave the plant soaking in water either. Remember that plants in containers dry much more quickly than plants grown in the ground and may even need daily watering in hot, dry weather.
Fertilize from spring through early fall with an all-purpose fertilizer diluted to half the recommended dosage.
Decision time comes at the end of summer. Do you prefer keeping it growing or do you want to force it into dormancy?
If you want it to keep growing, which means it will keep its leaves and its fruits will have time to mature, plus you might well see the plant rebloom sporadically, bring it in fairly early, certainly before nights drop below 50 ° F (10 ° C), and keep it warm, brightly lit and well watered throughout the fall and winter. Reasonable air humidity (40% and more) is also wise.
If you want it to go dormant, leave it outside until temperatures drop substantially and the leaves fall off. Bye-bye fruits (they might hang on, but as shells), but at least winter care will be minimal. Once dormant, the plant needs no light and you can “store it” in a cold, but frost-free spot, perhaps a barely heated garage, at between 33 and 40˚ F (0.5 and 4˚ C). Check monthly and add water if the soil is becoming overly dry.
The Spring Hair Cut
In both cases, spring, just as new growth starts to appear, is time to prune. You can shorten branches and remove weak or damaged ones. This is also a good time to repot it, something you’ll probably need to do every 3 or 4 years (more frequently with young plants). Pretty much any houseplant or container garden potting soil will be well suited for this purpose.
Growing It Outdoors Year Round
Of course, growing dwarf pomegranates outdoors all year-long will be limited to mild climates, essentially zones 8 to 11, perhaps zone 7 in a protected spot. Ideally, you’d choose a spot where there is no frost, although, as mentioned, it will take temperatures down to below 14 ° F/-10 ° C if they don’t last long. Be forewarned that temperatures only a bit below freezing can kill the plant to the ground, forcing it to resprout from its base.
This plant is easier to grow in the ground than in pots, especially since, once it’s been in place for a year or so, it’s extensive root system makes it very drought resistant. In fact, it will need little care at all, other than pruning. Almost any well-drained soil, even poor or rocky, will do. In general, just plant it in the sun and let it take care of itself.
The fastest way of multiplying a dwarf pomegranate is by tip cuttings about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) long, taken in the spring. Just apply a bit of rooting hormone to the wound, then insert the slips into a pot of slightly moist soil, placing the pot in a warm spot. Cover with a clear plastic bag or dome to keep humidity up. Rooting will only take a few weeks.
You can multiply dwarf pomegranate by seed, ideally in the spring, as it comes true to type. However, that only applies to P. granatum nana. Its various cultivars will not come true to type; you’ll need to propagate them by cuttings.
Where to Find a Plant?
First things first: seed of this plant is widely available. Just enter the name dwarf pomegranate seed in a search engine and you’re off to the races. The neat thing about seeds is that you can order seeds from foreign countries if you can’t find anything local.
In the US, many mail order sources offer dwarf pomegranate plants, including Direct Gardening and Logee’s. If you live in the southern half of the country, you’ll find plants in most garden centers, sometimes even a few of the cultivars.
In Canada, I know of only Flora Exotica and Richters Herbs that sell plants by mail order, but I’ll update this if you have other suggestions. If your local garden center has a bonsai department, it may well carry dwarf pomegranates as pre-bonsais.
In Europe and in Australia, dwarf pomegranates are widely available: you should no problem finding plants locally.
The dwarf pomegranate: a striking, fairly easy-to-grow plant that just isn’t well enough known among gardeners. Try one and see!