In recent years, there has been an increase in pomegranate demand, driven in part by its powerful antioxidant properties, which are associated with good health
By Sean Nealon
When he was about 2 years old, John Chater’s grandfather gave him a dark, purplish pomegranate. He opened it and started eating. He quickly realized his mistake. He was wearing new light brown suede shoes. The pomegranate juice quickly found the shoes, leaving a permanent stain.
Chater has a vivid memory of walking along a row of pomegranate trees and thinking of the experience as timeless, as if the trees were monuments or statues. As he picked fruit from the trees — some varietals developed by his grandfather — and ate it in the field, he realized how valuable they were. Hardly anyone else had access to them, and these pomegranates weren’t grown commercially.
Now, eight years later, Chater is a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside. His research focus is to better understand the commercial potential of 13 pomegranate varieties, including several his grandfather developed. He’s also breeding new types of pomegranates. “I’m a very fortunate graduate student,” Chater said. “I have been able to fulfill my dreams carrying on this family legacy of pomegranate research.”
Throughout his childhood he recalls his grandfather sitting in a brown recliner in the living room, watching television (favorites included the news, “Sanford and Son,” and “The Rockford Files”) while peeling pomegranates. The chair was covered in blankets and sheets to keep it from being stained by pomegranate juice.
His grandfather, S. John Chater, who died in 2001, was a maintenance worker at a hospital. But he developed a cult following among fruit growers in California for developing new varieties of pomegranates at his Camarillo home.
The younger Chater’s entrance into the pomegranate field coincides with a jump in interest in the fruit. In recent years, there has been an increase in acres planted with pomegranates and in demand for pomegranate fruit and its juice. That increased demand is being driven in part by pomegranates’ powerful antioxidant properties, which are associated with good health.
California grows more than 95 percent of pomegranates in the country. And 90 to 95 percent of pomegranates grown in the United States are the Wonderful variety.
Chater would like to broaden the varieties of pomegranates available so that someone going to a supermarket can buy varieties of pomegranates that vary in sweetness, seed hardness and color — the same way we buy apples.
With that in mind, shortly after starting the Ph.D. program at UC Riverside several years ago, Chater planted 13 pomegranate varieties at sites in Riverside and Camarillo to evaluate how well they establish, flower, and fruit; their usefulness to growers; and their desirability to consumers. (Two of the 13 varieties are being evaluated strictly for their use as flowers; pomegranate flowers look similar to carnations and can be used in bouquets.)
The varieties Chater is studying range in color from green, to yellow, to pink, to orange, to red, to nearly purple. He planted trial orchards in both Riverside and Camarillo to compare the impacts of the cooler coastal climate and the warmer inland climate. Prevailing thought says more acidic varieties do better in inland conditions because the high summer temperatures reduce acidity before the fruit is picked in the fall. No one has done such a comprehensive study of pomegranates in the United States. It will allow Chater to study the interplay of variables including size, color, sweetness, acidity, antioxidant activities, and seed hardness in different climate conditions.
Every once in a while the younger Chater would hear a strange glugging sound from the pomegranate wine his grandfather had fermenting in a dark corner of his living room. The younger Chater’s father, who didn’t inherit the pomegranate gene, said the wine was sour and tasted awful. The younger Chater never got to try it.
Chater, who graduated with his Ph.D. in June, is married. His wife, Rafika, also graduated from UCR in June with a bachelor’s degree. They would like to have children soon. “I hope to have a kid that is interested in pomegranates,” he said. And maybe it will skip a generation, like it did before. “Maybe one of my grandkids will appreciate pomegranates and be interested in what their great-great-grandfather did.”
Currently, 90 to 95 percent of pomegranates commercially available are one variety: Wonderful. Chater has initially identified seven pomegranate varieties that have commercial juice potential. Three of them — Blaze, Phoenicia, and Purple Heart — were developed by his grandfather.
- Al-Sirin-Nar: Large fruit, with hard seeds and soft peels. With its sweet-tart juice, it could be useful for juice applications. Seeds may be too hard for fresh market consumers.
- Blaze: Red, medium-sized fruit, juice more sweet than tart. Fruit similar to Wonderful. Could grow in coastal and inland areas.
- Desertnyi: Soft-seeded, medium-sized fruit with an ornamental quality to the fresh market fruit. Delicious balanced flavor that has been described as citrus-like. Trees may need trellis or rootstocks for commercial production.
- Parfianka: Soft-seeded variety with sweet-tart to sweet flavor. This variety is an international favorite for its refreshing flavor and soft seeds.
- Phoenicia: Large fruit with medium-to-hard seeds. Fruit multicolored with yellow, pink, and reds. Sweet-tart flavor with a tartness that consumers enjoy. Fruit seems to keep well in storage.
- Purple Heart: Medium-sized red fruit that has dark red juice and arils. Fruit and juice similar to Wonderful. Sold as Sharp Velvet at the largest wholesale grower of fruit trees, the Dave Wilson Nursery in California.
- Sakerdze: Large fruit, with hard seeds, soft peel, and large arils. Juice is sweet to sweet-tart. Fruit can be pinkish to red.