California pomegranate plantings have surged in the last decade from 5,000 to nearly 30,000 acres — more than plums — due to the fruit's intense flavor, reputed health benefits and beauty. The great majority are of the immodestly named Wonderful, which a Porterville, Calif., farmer propagated in 1896 from a Florida cutting; it yields large quantities of big glossy purple-red fruit, with juicy deep crimson pulp high in sweetness, acidity and flavor. For making juice, it can't be beat, but for eating fresh, the seeds within the arils (the little juicy nuggets popularly called "seeds") are too hard and chewy for many people.
The harvest season for Wonderful is normally October. Three earlier varieties are available in September, Grenada in August, and Early Foothill and Early Wonderful, but they are considerably inferior and smaller, with hard seeds and pallid, less flavorful juice.
Enter Greg Smith, who along with his father bought the Lulu Packing pomegranate business and orchards from the Slayman family, the longtime pomegranate kings, in the late 1970s and early '80s. In 1996, he noted that a chance seedling tree growing close to his Grenada orchard bore fruits that were deeply colored, large and juicy and had arils with soft seeds that made them easier to chew than those from other dark-fruited varieties. Together, these characteristics made it better than any pomegranate available commercially in September.
When he applied for a plant patent, which was granted in 2006, he gave his discovery the unmemorable name of "Smith" pomegranate, but as he started to commercialize it, he chose a more charismatic trademarked name for marketing, Angel Red. (Such split nomenclature is common these days, since the rights to the marketing name continue indefinitely, while the plant patent expires after 20 years.)
There's a sad story behind the name: Smith's son Ryan was stabbed to death at age 23, and Smith wanted to honor his memory. Since there was already a Ryan Red Delicious apple, he chose the name Angel Red.
The original tree in Strathmore, near Porterville, is now protected by a chain link fence, to discourage casual variety rustlers from stealing clippings, and adjoined by 60 acres of Smith's Angel Red trees, from 1 to 4 four years old. Working with a nursery in Visalia, Smith promoted the new variety to potential growers, who agreed to pay a royalty and have now planted a total of some 1,000 acres around the state, from San Diego County to the Sacramento Valley. He coordinates sales of trees through his company Angel Red Pomegranate Inc., and of fruit through one wholesaler, Sunriver Sales, seeking to avoid the overplanting and cutthroat competition that have destroyed the profitability of other promising varieties.
Statewide, the Angel Red harvest started two weeks ago, about 10 days late because of the generally cool summer, and will extend through early October, when the Wonderfuls come in. Last year, virtually all of the tiny crop was sent as a test shipment to Japan, so this is the first year that the fruit will be marketed domestically. Frieda's, the locally based specialty produce wholesaler, is distributing Angel Red, and Whole Foods will carry the variety in its Los Angeles stores starting Saturday. Arils packaged in plastic containers will be sold next year, Smith says.
Several farmers market growers have planted Angel Red, including Jim Faaborg, who has put in 20 acres in San Diego County, which will be sold by Stehly Farms of Valley Center; and Greg Nauta of Rocky Canyon Produce, who planted 800 trees in Atascadero, Calif. The trees are young, so it will be a year or more before their fruits start showing up at farmers markets.
Meanwhile, home gardeners can buy Angel Red trees through garden centers supplied by Monrovia Nursery. As with most conventional pomegranates, the fruit quality will be better from warm inland areas like the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, and less good from cool coastal districts.
Angel Red juice is darker than that of other pomegranate varieties in its season, and delightfully fruity, but not as inky as that of the standard Wonderful, which it is unlikely to displace as the standard juice variety. Pom Wonderful, which grows close to half of California's pomegranate acreage, is testing Angel Red but not rushing to plant orchards of it, says Eric Mercure, a variety specialist based in Bakersfield for Pom's sibling company, Paramount Farming.