Puzzling Pomegranates

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Last week I took a gamble and picked three pomegranates off the discount fruit and veggie rack. But when I got  back to my kitchen I realized I was vastly under prepared. Was it normal that the seeds were pink instead of red? Were they overripe? What would rotten seeds taste like? Were they worth the six dollars?

It got me curious about pomegranates, so here’s a few things you may not have known about this so-called “super fruit”.

Allergic to rain

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

You’d think this juicy fruit was born in a steamy rainforest. But it wasn’t.

Pomegranates came from dry, desert-like places like Persia, Iran and Afghanistan. They love cold winters and hot, dry summers and can live through long droughts.

Humidity does bad things to the fruit. If it rains too much the fruit fills up with water and gets soft and becomes difficult to ship. August rain can split the fruit on the tree, sometimes turning them inside out. In addition, too much rain in the spring may cause Alternaria fungus, which gets into the blossom and rots the fruit from the inside out. Eww.

Ancient refresher

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were one of the first cultivated fruits along with olives and dates. The cool, refreshing tree was brought to other arid regions of India, China, and the Mediterranean. Pomegranates eventually made their way to Spain, where the city of Granada is named after them. Today the world’s main producers are still India, Iran, Turkey and Spain.

The Spanish loved the fruit so much that missionaries brought the fruit to Mexico after the conquistadors had finished slaughtering the locals. The missionaries continued to grow the fruit in their gardens as they expanded north to California, which remains the primary U.S. producer.

Suspicious superfruit

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

 

Pomegranates have been aggressively marketed for their heart-healthy, cancer-fighting goodness. This is because North Americans are not eating very many, balking at paying high prices for a fruit that is at best daunting to eat.

The superfruit claims are based on laboratory tests that show pomegranates have antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. However, these studies were done in test tubes and in mice, and the effects haven’t yet been seen in human. This means there’s no evidence yet that pomegranates can prevent cancer or heart disease.

This doesn’t mean pomegranates are unhealthy. Far from it. They’re full of vitamin C and important nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Funky flowers

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

The crown on top of a pomegranate is made from the leftover petals from the blossom. Pomegranate plants have male flowers, which don’t make any fruit, and flowers with both male and female parts, which do. They are pollinated by bees.

Many people grow pomegranates as ornamentals because of their attractive orange-red flowers. In tropical America it’s grown in gardens just for show, because, as we know, humidity does bad things to the fruit.

Hedge fund

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

While pomegranates can be coerced into being a tree, they really prefer to be hedges and bushes with multiple trunks. In fact, hedges are often better for farmers than trees. Pomegranate trunks are very sensitive to frost, and if grown in a bush farmers can lose a few trunks to frost without losing most of their crop.

Amazing arils

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

What’s an aril? It’s the little sac of juice around each seed in the pomegranate, the part that actually tastes good.

By definition, an aril is sweet, attractive tissue stuck to a seed that makes birds and animals want to eat them and poop them out somewhere else. Other plants, like yew trees, also have arils.

Pomegranate arils can range from white to dark red. White or pink are usually sweeter than dark crimson.

While we’re on the topic of colour, in North America we’re used to the Wonderful variety of pomegranates with a bright scarlet peel, but the peels of other varieties can range from off-white to yellow to purple.

What to do with them?

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

My biggest question about pomegranates was how to eat them. Apparently my technique of cutting them in half is not the most efficient answer. The best is to slice off the top near the stem, score the skin into segments and then pull the segments apart. If you put the fruit in a bowl of water while you’re doing this the peel floats to the top and the arils will sink.

Ripe pomegranates look slightly square because the ripening arils push against the sides and flatten them. An unripe fruit is round like an apple. Whole fruit will keep up to 2 months in the fridge, and fresh juice or seeds up to 5 days. The arils can also be frozen.

Grenadine syrup, a flavoring for mixed drinks and an ice cream topping, is made from pomegranate juice. Apparently you can also make pomegranate wine, puddings and jellies.

Now you’ll have something to ponder next time you dissect a pomegranate.

References

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/pomegranate
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/pomegranate.htm
http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/rics/fnric2/crops/pomegranate_factsheet.shtml
http://www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/pomegranates/botany.shtml
http://pomegranates.org/index.php?c=5

Nice hips! Rose hips, that is.

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8LahP3

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8LahP3

If you have rose bushes in your area, you’ll notice they’re covered with red balls. What’s up with that? Is it a weird rose-eating fungus? Nope! They’re the roses’ fruit, called rose hips.

Roses you send to me

Ever wonder where roses came from? Well, they came from all over the place! Most species are from Asia, but a few are native to North America, Europe and northern Africa. Roses from far-flung regions are more than happy to interbreed when introduced to each other, which makes the family tree (or bush) quite muddled. Most of today’s garden roses came from 10 species from Asia.

A rose by any other name

Why rose hips? The word hip is from Old English, meaning ‘seed pod of the wild rose’. That’s a pretty specific noun! Rose hips are also called heps or haws. All these names sound like they belong in a jazz song.

Not a fruit!

Okay, I lied. Rose hips are not a fruit. Like the strawberry, they’re an aggregate fruit. If you cut one in half, you’ll see hairy achenes inside. These are the real fruit. The red fleshy stuff around them is actually the receptacle.

Can you eat them?

Yep, they're edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8vRtcc

Yep, they’re edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8vRtcc

Yes! Well, just the fleshy red part. The achenes have tiny, irritating hairs that would do nasty things to your insides. Some rose species have bigger hips than others, ranging from pea to cherry-sized. R. rugosa generally have the largest hips, and therefore have the most to eat! Rose hips are eaten by birds and small animals in the fall and winter.

Why would I want to eat them?

I asked the same question when I was 14. I’d read in a book that rose hips have more vitamin C than oranges, and I wanted to know what they tasted like. I plucked some large hips off my Mom’s rose bush and went at them with a knife and cutting board. Unlike apples, rose hips are mostly fluffy seeds with a tiny layer of edible red flesh. Peeling off this layer is labour intensive. Once it was free I popped it in my mouth and savored the tangy flavour, which reminded me of a crabapple. Texture wise, it felt like having a scrap of peach skin stuck in your teeth. It was yummy, but definitely not worth the effort.

Some would disagree with me.

Kissed by a rose

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8Jutfk

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC, https://flic.kr/p/8Jutfk

Rose hips are nutritional power-houses. A handful of rose hips contains as much vitamin C as 60 oranges! They are rich in vitamin A and B. They also have bioflavonoids, chemicals that strengthen blood vessels to prevent bruising, nosebleeds and hemorrhages.

If you live in a cold, dark county far away from orange groves, rose hips start looking pretty good. In Sweden, rose hip soup, or Nyponsoppa, is a popular dessert. Many indigenous groups in North America used rose hip tea and syrup for respiratory infections and sore mouths, and as a source of vitamins during the winter. They were used traditionally to cure arthritis, colds, indigestion, bladder stones and even gonerrhea.

Rose hips played a role in the war effort. England had a hard time importing oranges during the Second World War. It was kept scurvy-free by rose-hip syrup, made from hips hand-picked by volunteers.

I want to try them!

Okay, if you insist. If you pick your own, avoid bushes that were sprayed with pesticides. For the best result, wait until after the first frost. If you do they’ll be softer and sweeter. Just slice them in half with scissors or a knife and remove the seeds. Make tea with the fresh hips or throw them in salads. If you’re ambitious, you can make jelly, jams, syrups sauces and even cupcakes! Just be careful not to use aluminum pans, which will react with and destroy all that lovely vitamin C.

Enjoy the rainbow colours of rose hips this fall! Perhaps even sip some rosehip tea, which you can buy commercially.

References:

http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=21574
http://blogs.sweden.se/food/2011/10/25/rose-hip-soup/
http://www.uvm.edu/pss/ppp/articles/rosehips.html
http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=21574
http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=111799
http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/hortnews/2010/2-3/rosehips.html
http://www.aihd.ku.edu/foods/rosehips.html
http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rose+hip
http://gardening.about.com/od/rose1/f/RoseHips.htm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/509710/rose#ref54343

6 things I didn’t know about strawberries

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

It’s strawberry season in Ontario, and you know what that means: strawberry shortcake, muffins, trifles, and my personal favorite, spinach salad with strawberries!

Growing up it was my job to gather the strawberries from our small patch in the backyard. We never had many berries, as the squirrels got there before we did! To celebrate my largest harvest I decided to take initiative…and wash them in the kiddie pool. The one my brother and I had recently vacated. Not one of my best decisions. My mother was not impressed with the pool’s sanitary conditions, so I had to donate my beautiful strawberries to our local Feed the Birds and Squirrels Fund. Sigh.

In spite of this disappointment, my passion for eating strawberries only grew. Realizing I know very little about strawberries other than the fact that they are delicious, I decided to do a bit of research. I came up with the following list of reasons why strawberries are awesome.

1. A strawberry is not a berry

Strawberries aren't berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Strawberries aren’t berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Mind blown! In botanical terms (and I love botanical terms), berries are fleshy fruit that develop from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and even pumpkins. Real berries have seeds on the inside. Strawberries have seeds on the outside. Oops.

2. A strawberry is not even a fruit

Whaa? This is getting ridiculous. Of course strawberries are fruit, it says so in the food guide! Not according to botanists. They consider strawberries to be an accessory, or compound fruit. The green spots we call ‘seeds’, but botanists call ‘achenes’, are the real fruit. Each of these 100 mini-fruits must be pollinated separately.

The red stuff we like to munch on is the receptacle, the part of the flower that supports all of its sexual organs. When you think about it, fruit is just an assembly of plant lady bits. Maybe not a topic to bring up at the dinner table.

If you don’t believe me, these photos of developing strawberries might help:

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it's own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it’s own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

3. Attack of the clones!

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Strawberries have strange sex lives. The flowers are hermaphroditic and pollinate themselves. However, for a beautiful, well-formed receptacle, they need bees to help out.

Strawberries don’t normally reproduce using seeds. Instead, they reproduce asexually. The mother plant sends out runners that set down roots, creating daughter ‘clones’. The clones are genetically identical to the mother plant.

Farmers who want big berries cut off the clones, leaving the mother plant more energy to produce the fruit. The fewer runners, the bigger the berries. Farmers who grow berries for processing let a few runners go, and their berries are smaller. But if they’re being mashed into jam, size doesn’t matter! About 75% of strawberry crop is processed to make frozen strawberries, jams and yogurts. Only 25% is sold fresh.

4. Have a heart!

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

In many Western cultures, the heart-shaped strawberry symbolized love, passion and purity. For the Romans it was a symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love.

Next time you go into a Medieval church, look up, waaaay up, and you might see strawberries at the tops of the pillars. Stone masons put them there as a symbol of purity and perfection. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, Othello gives his wife Desdemonda a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolize her purity.

According to one legend, if you share a ‘double strawberry’ (those ginormous strawberries where it looks like two have grown together) with someone, the two of you will fall in love. Aww. Nice thought, but there’s no way I’m sharing my strawberries! Not only are they expensive, but want all the health benefits all to myself.

5. Marvelous Medicine

The Ancient Romans believed strawberry fruits and leaves had many medical uses, such as a treatment for kidney stones, fevers, liver problems, throat infections, bad breath and fainting.

Maybe they weren’t far off. Today we know that strawberries contain antioxidants (like vitamin C, Folate) that prevent cancer. Eating them daily has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth. They also have omega-3 fatty acids. Fat in strawberries, who knew? They contain Vitamin K, which is important for bone health and most people don’t get enough of it. They also contain iodine, a chemical that kick-starts the thyroid, your body’s powerhouse. The acid in strawberries also whitens teeth and heals the gums. Huh, maybe the Romans were right about bad breath!

Eating 8 strawberries will give you 160% of daily your vitamin C. By weight, that’s more than oranges. No wonder they are one of the world’s most popular fruits!

6. What’s in a name?

Why strawberry? In English, they used to be called strewberries, because the low-hanging fruit appear to be ‘strewn’ along the ground. Once farmers started bringing these delicate fruit to market packed in straw, the name was changed to strawberry. But you can use strewberry if you really want to. Happy strawberry eating and picking!

References
http://www.koppert.com/pollination/fruit-crops/crops/detail/strawberry/
http://ontarioberries.com/site/berry-info/strawberries.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/568585/strawberry
http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/strawberry.htm
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/fresh-fruits-and-vegetables/quality-inspection/fruit-inspection-manuals/strawberries/eng/1303696857326/1303696941051
http://www.foodland.gov.on.ca/english/fruits/strawberries/index.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cultivated-berries/
http://www.chpcanada.ca/en/blog/health-benefits-strawberries

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