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The blessed fruit

A smiling man with dark hair and a beard crouches next to a leafy green pomegranate tree. He is holding a pomegranate in his hand.
Bassam Al Haify of Gingin Pomegranates.

Just when you think everything that can be grown in the Northern Valleys is being grown, along comes a new visionary to take advantage of the perfect growing conditions for an emerging industry.

In this case, it is Bassam Al Haify and Ali Alzoubaydy, who have spent five years tending to a field of pomegranate trees in Bambun. The trees are now laden with spectacular fruit ready for their first commercial harvest of Gingin Pomegranates.

Botanically a berry, the pomegranate is an intriguing fruit. Cutting into it reveals hundreds of ruby-red arils, tiny jewels that are often assumed to be the seed of the fruit. The juice-filled arils in fact surround the seeds, which can vary in texture depending on variety. If you don’t care for the seeds, you can still enjoy the arils and discard the seeds as you would a citrus pip.

Due to its unique beauty and composition, the pomegranate features heavily in religious symbolism. It is mentioned in the Koran’s Garden of Paradise and the Bible’s Garden of Eden, and is a symbol of fertility and beauty in Greek mythology. You could find embroidered pomegranates in the robe of a Jewish high priest, and in Buddhism — along with citrus and the peach — the pomegranate is one of the three blessed fruits.

For Bassam it is the physical, not symbolic, properties of pomegranates that are worthy of worship and what inspired him to grow them. With demand increasing and most pomegranates imported from California — and the decline in quality and taste that accompanies the process — it was a gap waiting to be filled.

“When you get them fresh the taste is amazing,” said Bassam. “I buy them from the shop occasionally just to see and – no. You can’t compare. I thought we may as well plant it ourselves and the weather out here was perfect for what we wanted to grow.”

Pomegranates love a long, hot summer. Native from Iran to Northern India, they are a drought-tolerant plant, although setting up the correct watering schedule for each tree was a particular challenge for Bassam and Ali. Once they had the fertigation optimised, the thousands of trees flourished.

“I feel we can grow just about anything here in WA. And being in the southern hemisphere, we have a great export opportunity,” said Bassam.

According to AgriFutures Australia, pomegranate cultivation has the potential to double its value by 2025. Demand has risen among chefs, who have learnt to integrate pomegranates beyond a sprinkling of arils on a salad, and also among health-conscious consumers.

The health benefits of pomegranates are something Bassam is passionate about. And as a pharmacist, he knows his material! “Pomegranates have a lot of antioxidants, more than any other berry,” he said. “A lot of research has been done using them for cancer treatment, blood pressure, weight loss. They also have anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties.”

A star component of the pomegranate is the polyphenols – antioxidants that can combat cell damage. In vitro and animal studies have shown pomegranates (in varying forms, from whole fruit to concentrated extracts and powders) reduce existing cancer cell growth and inhibit the spread of cancer cells in the body. Bassam even has cancer patients visit him for the potent product on the recommendation of their oncologist.

Pomegranate juice is Bassam’s favourite way to consume the fruit. “When I was young, growing up in Iraq, I used to drink a lot of pomegranate juice,” he laughs. “I just love it…it is something else – especially juiced fresh.”

Unlike other juices, which can hide a heap of sugar behind a healthy façade, pomegranate juice has a low glycaemic load which is especially important for diabetics – for whom pomegranates have shown to improve insulin sensitivity.

Bassam is hoping to have nearly 8 tonne of fruit ready for farm gate sales in the coming months. To keep an eye on Bassam and Ali’s progress, follow them on Facebook and Instagram @gingin_pomegranates.