Herbs in History: Pomegranate
Punica granatum L.
A Plant with a Pedigree
Illustration 1: Pomegranate trees and fruit (Ozgu Donmaz/Getty Images)
If there is a plant that may claim to have accompanied Humankind from its origins to present day, it is without doubt pomegranate (Illustration 1).
In the biblical narrative of Adam and Eva (Genesis, chapter 3), the serpent in the Garden of Eden led Eva into temptation pushing her to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, whereas God had commented them to neither eat nor touch it. Desiring wisdom, Eva ate the prohibited fruit, and gave it to Adam. Both were expelled from the Garden by God, and, from then on, Humankind eats bread “by the sweat of their face.” The ancient text refers to a fruit that has been identified as a fig by the early Christians and, further on, as an apple. But couldn’t it be a pomegranate according to the Iranian interpretation?
Nowadays, at the other end of the chronology, pomegranate is much sought after for the antioxidant and multiple other healthy virtues of its superbly red fruits which can be easily found on the fruit market from the Fall up to way into Winter, almost Spring, whereas until not so long ago it was more of a wintery decorative fruit, a symbol of Christmas.
Smashing a pomegranate on New Year’s Day is a ritual coming from Antiquity as pomegranate and its numerous blood-red arils are symbols of abundance, good fortune, fertility, and life.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum L., Lythraceae [Punicaceae]) is considered to have been domesticated as early as 2500 BCE in a region extending from current central Iraq to the Caucasus, that is, the cradle of Humankind according to a historicizing interpretation of the biblical narrative. Interestingly enough, it went through a second, independent process of domestication possibly between the 3rd and 2nd millennium, in the region corresponding to present-day Albania.
Before these domestication processes and their respective geographical locations were identified by modern archaeobotanical investigation, pomegranate was believed to have a different origin as the name it was given by Carl Linnaeus indicates: Punica granatum. If granatum, referring to the many grains (the arils) of the pomegranate, is a good, though simple, visual perception of the inner parts of pomegranate, the term Punica, instead, is misleading and worth investigating as it hints at a complex network of meanings. In classical Latin, indeed, the term punicus (Punic) referred to the Carthaginians, that is, the inhabitants of Carthage (in the territory of modern Tunisia). Hence the designation of the Punic wars for the fight waged by Rome against the Carthaginians from 264 to 146 BCE. Now, the Carthaginians were descendants of Phoenicians, a population of seafarers in the Eastern Mediterranean located in the region corresponding to present Lebanon. In their explorations westward these mariners and traders settled in north Africa in the 9th cent. BCE where they founded Carthage as a relay in their Mediterranean commercial network. Returning to the Carthaginians, their name in classical Latin, Punici, was a deformation of the name of the Phoenicians: Phoenici. The use of the term Punicus to identify pomegranate evoked at the same time the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians in an interesting amalgam: whereas the connection with the Phoenicians recalls the Eastern origin of pomegranate, the reference to the Carthaginians draws a commercial route through which pomegranate reached the Roman world in antiquity.
Through its Linnean designation, pomegranate was identified as the Carthago-Phoenician [ fruit] with many grains, with a geographical designation seemingly referring to a North-African/Near-Eastern origin. It was the merit of the French botanist Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyramus de Candolle (1806-1893) to better identify pomegranate’s native region as Persia (current Iran) in his seminal work L’origine des plantes cultivées first published in 1882 (The origin of Cultivated Plants).
Research was not over, however, as De Candolle’s identification was rather imprecise. In a first phase, the Russian botanist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) moved pomegranate’s origin westward, to Asia Minor (current Turkey), in his Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants (1940 in Russian, with the first English translation in 1992). But, twenty years later, another Russian botanist, Armen L. Takhtajan (1910-2009), expanded this region from the Balkan Peninsula to the Western Himalayas. At the same time, he located the ancestor of Punica in the Socotra Archipelago (east of the Horn of Africa, now Socotra Governorate of Yemen) in the form of Punica protopunica in his Floristic Regions of the World 1961 (originally in Russian, with a first English translation as early as 1969). None of the two botanists identified, however, the double process of domestication that later archaeobotany discovered. Wild species are still found in Albania and Montenegro on the one hand, and in Eastern Turkey and South of Caspian Sea, on the other hand, confirming both the double domestication and Vavilov’s location of pomegranate’s native distribution, without going further East as per Takhtajan.
The story of the trading routes of pomegranate implicitly contained in the Linnean Latin term Punica hints at the spread of the tree throughout the Mediterranean, which certainly benefitted from this double domestication early in history. The Mediterranean environment was very favourable, indeed. Pomegranate grows easily in the dry and hot conditions typical of the Mediterranean, with abundant exposure to light and sun. It is a deciduous tree growing to 5 to 8 m (16 to 26 ft) in light, medium, and heavy soils, well-drained, and acid, neutral, or basic. It is hermaphrodite, and flowers from the tips of the yearly growth from June to September. It easily propagates from seed in Spring, and it is now cultivated in warm temperate zones with many named varieties. Mostly cultivated for its edible fruit, it is also an attractive ornamental garden plant.
Psychotropic or Astringent?
Illustration 2: The so-called “Poppy Goddess." 1400-1100 BCE, discovered at Gazi, Crete, now Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, Greece. (Wikipedia Commons)
Pomegranate has a special status in all Mediterranean world, with different values according to the cultures. The fruit at the origin of the war waged in the 13th or 12th century BCE by the Greeks against Troy, at the entrance of the straight leading from the Aegean to the Black Sea, might not have been an apple, but a pomegranate, hinting at the desirability of the red, ripe pomegranate, full of arils, symbolizing both blood and life probably better than any other fruit.
The typical appearance and shape of its fruit, nearly round and crowned at the base by the prominent calyx, is noticeable and made an elegant decorative motive in ancient decorative arts. At the same time, this shape recalls that of the poppy capsules. A case in point is the small statues of the Cretan goddess dating as far back as the 11th century BCE (Illustration 2). Her head is adorned with three appendices made of a short stem ending with a small sphere surmounted by a small crown. Whereas it is clear that these appendices are fruits, the exact identification of these fruits has been debated: pomegranate or poppy? The incision on the side of the spheres seems to indicate that these are poppy capsules rather than pomegranate fruits, opening interesting considerations on the use of opium early in Greek history. However clear the identification of these fruits might be, it has nevertheless been affirmed that these were pomegranates and that these fruits were used as substitutes of poppy as psycho-active substances in a use that is not confirmed in the ancient medical literature.
The ancient Greek scientists were familiar with the pomegranate. The Father of Botany, Theophrastus (4th cent. BCE.), cites it in numerous passages of his Historia Plantarum (Inquiry into Plants) and Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), the author of De materia medica who can be identified as the Father of Pharmacognosy, describes two main species (wild and domesticated), each with three sub-species: white, red, and pink for the wild species, and sweet, sour, and wine-flavored for the domesticated species.
The physicians, as for them, used it for a great many purposes that hint at an excellent knowledge of the activity of all its parts, most certainly resulting of a long experience and experimentation through the centuries. Already in the late 5th century BCE, those of them who were practicing medicine in the way of Hippocrates (5th/4th cent. BCE) used it mostly in gynecology for the general care of the womb and for the treatment of discharges of all kinds in the form of an injection. They also used it for three major groups of indications: in external application for the treatment of wounds and swellings; in internal administration for the prevention and treatment of digestive and intestinal troubles (particularly diarrhea), in addition to respiratory problems (probably pulmonary infections with mucus); and as a general febrifuge. The common property accounting for this apparent diversity of indications is most probably the astringent action resulting from the tannins actually contained in several parts of pomegranate.
Centuries later, Dioscorides is both synthetic and more specific. Synthetically, he considered that pomegranate is good for the digestive system, particularly the sweet species, whereas the sour one is a more specific medication of heartburn. More specifically, he reported differentiated therapeutic indications and forms of administration according to the parts of the plants. Starting with the arils of the sour species, he recommended them in three different forms:
dried in the sun or boiled and mixed with food to stop vomiting and diarrhea;
soaked in rainwater (that is, in water either uncontaminated or free of any other active component) and administered in two different ways:
orally to stop blood spitting (which might be interpreted in different ways, including tuberculosis);
in sitz bath for the treatment of gynecological discharges and also intestinal troubles;
boiled with honey and applied as an ointment on sores, spreading ulcers and excrescences on the hands; and also for the treatment of earaches and in the nostrils;
As for the other parts, he distinguished the flowers, the rind, and the root:
the flowers are generally astringent, drying, and anti-hemorrhagic, and close bleeding wounds. Specifically, their decoction was used in two different forms:
as a mouthwash for the treatment of the gingiva and teeth;
as a plaster in the case of hernias;
the rinds are astringent;
the roots are used as a decoction taken orally against flat worms.
The astringent action that probably accounts for many of these uses was best expressed by one of the names of pomegranate in ancient Greek: rhoa, which derives from the etymological root rheo, meaning “to flow”. The term rhoa is a reference to the fluxes that pomegranate treated, be they gynecological, stomachic or intestinal, traumatic (suppurations of wounds), or respiratory (blood-spitting), against all of which pomegranate was active thanks to its astringency. Nevertheless, Greek mythology interpreted the term in a different way, possibly referring to the juice obtained by pressing the arils (Illustration 3). In this view, pomegranate was connected with Rhoio the daughter of Stafulos (whose name is that of the grape vine) himself the son of Dionysios, the god of wine and ebriety. Through this mythological filiation, pomegranate was a cognate of grape and wine.
Illustration 3: Pomegranate arils (Kseniia Perminova)
Across the World and the Centuries
Though typically Mediterranean, pomegranate was introduced to India and, going further East, to China. And it was assimilated in the local medical systems. In most cases introduction of a non-native plant into a new environment generated new uses as a response to local conditions. Here, instead, it was not the case. Pomegranate appears in Ayurvedic and ancient traditional Chinese medicine (not the current TCM) with properties and uses that are similar, if not identical, to those in the ancient Mediterranean World.
In a traditional narrative, pomegranate (as a part of the body of Greek medical literature) reached these worlds through the Arabic World, where its use reproduced those of ancient Greece since the Greek medical literature of antiquity was translated into Arabic between the late 9th century and the 11th. From there, knowledge of pomegranate pursued its movement eastward passing through India and reaching as far as China. The chronology of the documentation contradicts, however, this linear history: one of the founding texts of Ayurvedic medicine where pomegranate appears, the Sushruta Samhita, dates indeed to the 3rd–4th century CE, that is, to a time that precedes by several centuries the transfer of Greek medicine to the Arabic World. The fact is that Alexander the Great (346-323 BCE) arrived up to Kashmir in 327-325 BCE and Greeks settled in in the region. They probably introduced pomegranate and its medicinal uses, which they further transmitted to the local populations.
To mention just a few of its indications, pomegranate was prescribed in the Sushruta Samhita for the treatment of gynecological discharges, troubles of the digestive and intestinal system, be it dyspepsia, diarrhea or intestinal worms (fruit juice and bark decoction), and also stimulation of the digestive system, in addition to cleaning and healing sores (bark decoction) thanks to its general properties as astringent, digestive, and stimulant.
From India probably, pomegranate reached China. The story is known explicitly thanks to Li Shizhen (1518-1593) who mentions in the Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of materia medica) that the plant was introduced to the Chinese World toward the end of the 2nd century BCE by Zhang Qian (d. 114 BCE). The similarity of the definition of three species in the Bencao Gangmu and in Dioscorides is striking, with three species identified by the color of their flower (red, white and yellow in the Bencao Gangmu) and by the taste of their juice (sweet, sour, bitter in the Bencao Gangmu_ even though in both cases one of element is different (yellow in the Bencoao Gangmu instead of pink in Dioscorides, and bitter instead of wine-flavored). The indications also are very similar. To take just one example, the different parts of the sour species were used in the treatment of the following conditions:
Fluxes of all kinds
Mouth and gums
The similarity is such that one might wonder whether the Chinese World did not come in direct contact with the Greek World and some form of Dioscorides’ De materia medica or a similar pharmacopoeia, instead of having been transited through the Indian world. If so, pomegranate might be considered as a revealing indicator of contacts between China and the Mediterranean World that are not well attested otherwise. Such a narrative would also contradict the general historical rule in the history of medicine and therapeutics according to which the transmission of a materia medica from one culture to another generates both a loss of the original information and the introduction of new information collected along the way in the transmission process or generated by the receiving culture. The question is open and would require new investigations.
From the Genesis to traditional Chinese culture, to modern pharmacognostic research, to present-day consumption and health benefits, pomegranate certainly is a plant with a rare pedigree characterized by a remarkable continuity with uses that have crossed the centuries, the cultures and the continents without much change, providing solid evidence for renewed applications.
Literature (selection, chronological order)
Jieping Y., P. Germano, S. Oh, S. Wang, J. Wang, S. Henning, J. Zhong, Z. Li. Alleviation of Intestinal Inflammation by Dietary Pomegranate Extract Supplementation in Mice. Current Developments in Nutrition 5 (Suppl. 2) (2021): 1145.
Kaseke T., U.L. Opara, O.A. Fawole. Quality and Antioxidant Properties of Cold-Pressed Oil from Blanched and Microwave-Pretreated Pomegranate Seed. Foods 10(4) (2021): 712.
Kaseke T., U.L. Opara, O.A. Fawole. Effects of Enzymatic Pretreatment of Seeds on the Physicochemical Properties, Bioactive Compounds, and Antioxidant Activity of Pomegranate Seed Oil. Molecules 26(15) (2021): 4575.
Moga M.A., O.G. Dimienescu, A. Bălan, L. Dima, S.I. Toma, N.F. Bîgiu, A. Blidaru. Pharmacological and Therapeutic Properties of Punica granatum Phytochemicals: Possible Roles in Breast Cancer. Molecules 26(4) (2021): 1054.
Fourati M., S. Smaoui, H.B. Hlima, K. Elhadef, O.B. Braïek, K. Ennouri, A.C. Mtibaa, L. Mellouli. Bioactive Compounds and Pharmacological Potential of Pomegranate (Punica granatum) Seeds - A Review. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition 75 (2020): 477–486. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11130-020-00863-7
Vučić V., M. Grabež, A. Trchounian, A. Arsić. Composition and Potential Health Benefits of Pomegranate: A Review. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 25(16) (2019): 1817-1827.
Elbatanony M.M., A.M. El-Feky, B.A. Hemdan, M.A. El-Liethy. Assessment of the antimicrobial activity of the lipoidal and pigment extracts of Punica granatum L. leaves. Acta Ecologica Sinica 39(1) (2019): 89-94.
Saeed M., M. Naveed, J. BiBi, A.A. Kamboh, M.A. Arain, Q.A. Shah, M. Alagawany, M.E.A. El-Hack, M.A. Abdel-Latif, M.I. Yatoo, R.Tiwari, S. Chakraborty, K. Dhama. The Promising Pharmacological Effects and Therapeutic/Medicinal Applications of Punica Granatum L. (Pomegranate) as a Functional Food in Humans and Animals. Recent Patents on Inflammation & Allergy Drug Discovery 12(1) (2018): 24-38.
Panth N., B. Manandhar, K.R. Paudel. Anticancer Activity of Punica granatum (Pomegranate): A Review. Phytotherapy Research 31(4) (2017): 568-578.
Wu S., L. Tian. Diverse Phytochemicals and Bioactivities in the Ancient Fruit and Modern Functional Food Pomegranate (Punica granatum). Molecules 22(10) (2017): 1606.
Shaygannia E., M. Bahmani, B. Zamanzad, M. Rafieian-Kopaei. Review Study on Punica granatum L. Journal of Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 21(3) (2016): 221-227.
Pagliarulo C., V. De Vito, G. Picariello, R. Colicchio, G. Pastore, P. Salvatore, M.G. Volpe. Inhibitory effect of pomegranate (Punica granatum L.) polyphenol extracts on the bacterial growth and survival of clinical isolates of pathogenic Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. Food Chemistry 190(1) (2016): 824-831.
Banihani S., S. Swedan, Z. Alguraan. Pomegranate and type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Research 33(5) (2013): 341-348.
Baliga M.S., A.R. Shivashankara, C.B. Shetty, K.R. Thilakchand, N. Periera, P.L. Palatty. Chapter 31 - Antidiabetic Effects of Punica granatum L (Pomegranate): A Review. Bioactive Food as Dietary Interventions for Diabetes, 2013, pp. 355-369.
Chandra R., K.D. Babu, V.T. Jadhav, J.A.T. da Silva. Origin, History and Domestication of Pomegranate. Fruit, Vegetables and Cereal Science and Biotechnology 4 (Special Issue 2) (2010): 1-6.
Al-Zoreky N.S. Antimicrobial activity of pomegranate (Punica granatum L.) fruit peels. International Journal of Food Microbiology 134(30 (2009): 244-248.
Bell C., S. Hawthorne. Ellagic acid, pomegranate and prostate cancer -- a mini review. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 60(2) (2008): 139-144.
Prashanth D., M.K. Asha, A. Amit. Antibacterial activity of Punica granatum. Fitoterapia 72(2) (2001): 171-173.