By: Brad Buck, firstname.lastname@example.org
BALM, Fla. — You can enjoy pomegranates in myriad ways. You can toss them in salads, sprinkle their seeds on yogurt or oatmeal or add them to smoothies. When you consume pomegranates, you’ll savor their sweet and sour flavor. You may be drawn not only to their taste, but perhaps to their nutritional value. They contain antioxidants that help boost your heath.
How special is this fruit? One of the most popular varieties is literally called ‘Wonderful.’ Scientists nationwide, including researchers at the University of Florida, soon will try to improve the ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate and other varieties of the fruit. In Florida, research will start as soon as scientists can return to their fields and labs.
California farmers produce 90% of the nation’s pomegranates, but ‘Wonderful’ pomegranates come from cuttings in Florida. Some Florida farmers seeking alternative crops see pomegranates as among their options.
Zhanao Deng, a professor of environmental horticulture at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC), will soon collaborate with researchers nationwide to breed more disease- and pest-resistant pomegranates.
“For Florida pomegranate growers to be successful and sustainable, we need new varieties that are better adapted to our climate and more resistant to diseases commonly found in Florida,” Deng said.
To find these new varieties, Deng tests about 2,000 plants from sets of parent plants that were grown several years ago.
“We plan to create new breeding populations and screen them for better disease resistance, higher crop yield and better fruit quality,” he said.
At the GCREC, Deng will work with Gary Vallad, a UF/IFAS plant pathology associate professor. The two scientists also will work with Florida growers to find plants that show the best disease resistance. When promising new cultivars become available, they will be tested in growers’ orchards.
As part of the national research team, Deng will work with scientists at the University of California-Riverside, Texas A&M University, California State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. UC-Riverside leads the grant, after it received an $885,801 grant from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service through the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Multi-State Program.
Initially, in 2017, Deng started testing pomegranates to see if they would grow at his farm at the research center. This is called “trialing.”
“Our trials have shown that the pomegranate plants can grow really well in Florida,” he said. “But the most challenging issue comes from several fungal diseases that can cause severe defoliation, fruit rot and fruit drop.”
Those issues – along with bugs and mites — reduce crop yield and quality. Commercial farmers see the same issues with pomegranates, Deng said.
Despite issues with fungi and pests, “Farmers have been very supportive to our pomegranate research, and we have been working together for years,” he said.
“Florida specialty crop growers have faced a tough situation in recent years, due to devastating diseases and international competition, and they have been looking for alternative crops to grow,” Deng said. “Pomegranate seems to make sense to Florida growers as it can be grown with the same irrigation, fertilization and spray equipment that have been used for growing citrus or some other crops.”