growing an ecosystem of abundance

Pomegranate and Persimmon tasting at Wolfskill Experimental Farm, Nov. 2012

The USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository Davis held it’s 12th pomegranate and persimmon tasting at  the Wolfskill Experimental Farm near Winters, the site of their field collections. This collection of fruit nut varieties includes some 7,414 accessions, including 22 genera, and 248 taxa of 220 species, a real Noah’s Ark of perennial fruit and nut varieties for Northern California.

The tasting was held outside in the shadows of huge olive trees, amid the vast grape (Vitis spp.) collection which alone contains some 3,000 accessions. Other years, rainy November weather forced the tastings into a crowded room, so it was great to enjoy a sunny day outside, allowing over 75 participants plenty of space to sample some 18 varieties of pomegranates, and 5 kinds of persimmons.

Jeff Moersfelder discussing the diversity offered at the tasting, selected from the collection of 275 accessions of pomegranates (Punica granatum), which he manages for the USDA. Set up similar to a wine tasting, the varieties were arranged from mildest to strongest flavored. In this photo, the most tart varieties are in the foreground. Pomegranate enthusiast and grower Harvey Correia is also seen in the crowd (with the pomegranate t-shirt).

Preparations started weeks before the event, with the pomegranates being harvested at their peak of ripeness and stored, before the early fall rains could increase the chances of the fruit splitting in the field. On the Thursday before the Saturday tasting, the processing of the fruit began. Jeff documented the fruits from each variety, from each year’s harvest. This data is made available through the USDA ARS NCGR Davis pomegranate webpage: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=12170

The removal of the arils (the juicy flesh around the seeds) from the bitter skins of the fruits is a lot of work. With eighteen varieties each requiring about 2 kilos of clean arils each for the tasting, there was 50 -75 pounds of arils to clean.  This took perhaps 30+ hours of labor. Along with USDA staff and volunteers from the UCCE Sacramento Master Gardeners, I spent about 4 hours volunteering toward the effort, and enjoyed sampling the culled, off types! I wore my pome juice splattered clothing proudly. We carefully set aside the rind of some varieties for an interesting research project studying the anthelmintic (expelling parasitic worms)  effects on goats!

Carefully spanking the crimson globes yields undamaged jewels

The best way to clean the fruit is by carefully cutting it in half by just cutting through the outer skin, so you can pull it apart. Then it is scored further along the outside of the inner membrane divisions, and pulled apart into yet smaller sections. This avoids damaging the little arils and losing their juice. The resulting segments are then slapped vigorously on the thick rind side with a heavy spatula over a bowl of water, so the seeds jump out of their tight little seats into the water, sinking to the bottom. The juice from the few damaged arils is washed away by the water, and the bitter white bits of membrane float to the surface, where they are easily removed. The free arils are then rinsed well, spun dry in a salad spinner, and bagged up into  gallon zip-loc plastic bags (1-2 gallons per each variety) for cold storage until the tasting.

The table of varieties being set up before the tasting, with the pale, mild ones in the foreground

Jeff with the many kilos of cleaned arils, with a backdrop of grapes vines in lovely fall color.

Jenny Smith, who manages the Diospyros collection, artistically arranging her persimmon varieties for tasting, both fresh and dried, which she chose from some 139 accessions of Kaki.

See the Diospyros kaki page here: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=12138

These selections of Japanese persimmon, or kaki, were not the astringent types that need to be totally soft ripe to eat. They were all edible when hard, known botanically as Pollination Constant Non-Astringent (PCNA). But there was one selection that was Pollination Variant Non Astringent (PVNA) type- that is  astringent when not pollinated, becoming non-astringent when pollinated, and seeded. (My permaculture friend Eric Ohlsen didn’t know about this  phenomenon, so he was disappointed when his newly fruiting ‘Coffee Cake’ persimmon was suprisingly astringent, until I told him it was only because his pollen source- a young ‘Fuyu’ tree nearby- had not flowered yet- mystery solved!)

Pollinated, this PVNA variety is non-astringent and edible when still firm ripe and develops seeds, and the characteristic cinnamon speckled coloration of the inner flesh, also known as a ‘chocolate persimmon’, or ‘Maru’ type. Un-pollinated, this would not have any of the brown coloration, no seeds, and taste astringent when firm.

After a formal greeting and introductions by head researcher John Preece, Jeff and Jenny talked about the selections they made for the tasting, and we all took our time tasting, chatting and comparing notes. For me, it was hard to pick a favorite, they all had their own appeal! I will post the lists of the cultivars which were sampled, soon.

Knowing that not everyone would be able to attend the event, I made arrangements with chestnut farmer and pomegranate collector Harvey Correia to purchase a box of 20 pounds of pomegranates of mixed varieties. This would allow our Golden Gate CRFG chapter members to taste the diversity at our upcoming meeting. I asked him to include more varieties on the light and bland side, as these are easier to ripen in cool, coastal areas where many of our chapter members live. Harvey also had many varieties of pomegranate plants for sale at the Wolfskill tasting. We hope that Harvey will offer plants for sale at our upcoming CRFG scion exchanges. You can visit Harvey’s pomegranate website here: http://www.purelypoms.com/ , and the pomegrante internet forum he founded and moderates: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/PomWorldwide/.

The vast collection of fruit and nut varieties maintained by the USDA is made available for research and educational purposes. From their website:

“Due to the intensive effort and resources required to ensure availability of germplasm for this purpose, we are unable to distribute it for home gardening or other purposes that can utilize readily available commercial cultivars.”

If you are interested in those varieties which are not available through local retail nursery, or mail order sources, I would encourage you to contact your local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers to request such material from the USDA. In this way, many small orders are consolidated into larger orders that reduce effort and costs for the USDA, stretching our federal tax dollars. And you just might meet some interesting local fruit enthusiasts.

Thanks to the California Rare Fruit Growers, UCCE Sacramento Master Gardeners, USDA ARS NCGR Davis, the many volunteers, and all the tasting participants.

-JV

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