With a history long steeped in mythology and folklore, pomegranate is one of the most symbolic and widely used plants in all of botany. Art from the earliest days of Islam, Judaism and Christianity depict pomegranates to symbolize both unity and eternal life. And biblical scholars have long theorized that this “apple with many seeds” is the apple of the biblical Garden of Eden.
Known botanically as Punica granatum, pomegranate is now cultivated in subtropical regions around the world but it’s believed to be native to an area ranging from northern Iran through the Himalayas. Pomegranate is a large thorny shrub or a small spiny tree with short-stemmed leathery leaves. In warmer climates, the leaves are evergreen; in climates with cold winters the leaves fall during the colder months.
Nearly all parts of the pomegranate are used in herbal medicine but it’s the thick-skinned fruit that gets the most attention. In fact, the name, “pomegranate” comes from the Latin malum granatum meaning “apple with many seeds” and it’s these “many seeds” that make up around half of the fruit’s mass.
Traditional Herbal Uses for Pomegranate
Nicholas Culpepper used a “strong infusion” of pomegranate to “cure ulcers in the mouth and throat and fasten the teeth”. He placed pomegranate under the sign of mercury and used infusions of the bark and fruit to treat excessive bleeding and bacterial infections of the mouth, throat and vagina.
In Ayurveda, pomegranate is considered a bitter, cooling, astringent herb which acts primarily on the blood, marrow and nerves. Ayurveda practitioners use pomegranate to balance the doshas and increase Pitta. Pomegranate is used primarily in Ayurveda to expel tapeworms but it’s also recognized as an excellent remedy for sore throat, leucorrhea, conjunctivitis and tuberculosis.
In traditional Chinese medicine, pomegranate is considered a yin tonic. Though it’s not used extensively in traditional Chinese herbology, pomegranate is employed to produce the fluids necessary to quench excessive thirst. Pomegranate is also used to treat dry, unproductive coughs and the chronic diarrhea that often follows a bacterial infection.
In the Middle East, pomegranate was traditionally used primarily to expel parasites but perhaps its most interesting use was as a contraceptive. Physicians from Soranus to Avicenna wrote about pomegranate’s ability prevent pregnancy. And today, pomegranate still enjoys limited use as a folk contraceptive in rural parts of Africa.
Modern Herbal Uses for Pomegranate
Pomegranate is listed as a recognized drug in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China and is used by herbalists throughout the world to treat intestinal worms and the diarrhea and discomfort that often accompany these types of parasitic infections. And though it’s not as well known here, pomegranate is valued by U.S. herbalists who use it to treat digestive disorders, dysentery, and tapeworms.
The Latest Research on Pomegranate
The most exciting research on pomegranate involves prostate cancer. A 2005 study presented to the American Urological Association in San Antonio found that just 8 ounces of pomegranate juice a day prevented metastasis in men previously treated for prostate cancer. And a study presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that pomegranate not only stops the growth of cancer cells; it actually forces those cells to undergo apoptosis, or pre-programmed cell death. Exactly how pomegranate forces these cancerous cells to self-destruct is unknown at this time but researchers are very excited by these findings.