Spotlight: Barbara Baer, '61, MA '64
The Fruit of Her Labor
Courtesy Barbara Baer
MISSION POSSIBLE: Baer’s efforts are increasing awareness of wild pomegranates.
In 2001, a radio interview with a Russian-born botanist planted the seed for publisher Barbara Baer’s latest venture. “I felt more than chance had carried Dr. Grigory Levin’s voice from Turkmenistan to my car radio,” she says about learning that drought and lack of government assistance threatened acres of pomegranates in Turkmenistan—the last place the fruit grows wild. “To my ears, Levin had been delivering a personal plea—an invitation for me to visit the last wild pomegranates.”
The native Californian decided to travel to Levin’s agricultural research station, Garrygala, and her love affair with pomegranates began.
Awaiting her tourist visa, Baer learned about the fruit and printed a brochure to raise money for the 1,117 varieties at Garrygala. Folk healers treated illnesses like dyspepsia and leprosy with pomegranates. The Spanish once used them to guard sailors against scurvy. Some biblical scholars believe the pomegranate, not the apple, was the fruit Eve gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Baer finally received her visa and traveled 10,000 miles to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in October 2002. But once she was there, the local government revoked her permission to visit Garrygala, citing security concerns. Levin had since emigrated to Israel and Makmud Isar, who now ran the research facility, met Baer in Ashgabat. The two feasted from his bag of yellow, pink, peach, maroon and purple pomegranates—no two alike.
Back home, Baer wrote about her efforts for Orion magazine. The story was picked up by the BBC and attracted wide attention. “Planet pomegranate” is what Levin calls the collective lovers of the ruby fruit. “I realized I joined this clan when people from all over the country and abroad began writing to me about them,” says Baer.
Levin was later able to reach Baer by e-mail. She is publishing his memoir, Pomegranate Roads: A Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden, in November through her publishing house, Floreant Press, in Forestville, Calif. The story recounts Levin’s work and his treks to Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus in search of the last wild pomegranates. Two other books about pomegranates have been published partly due to Baer’s efforts.
The booming interest in this ancient fruit doesn’t surprise Baer. “Pomegranates have such strong antiviral properties that in Israel researchers are experimenting with coating condoms with an extract to inhibit transmission of sexually transmitted diseases,” she says. “Also, pomegranate phytoestrogens have been used as a natural estrogen enhancement.” She says it is also important to protect them in light of global climate change: pomegranates, unlike many plants, can survive increased heat.
Of course, this juicy fruit is also delicious. In November 2005, a blind tasting of 40 pomegranate varieties took place at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard at UC-Davis. Levin had sent the repository his rare varieties years earlier and they had finally produced enough fruit for the tasting. “The Turkmenistan varieties won the sweepstakes, which made Levin very happy,” says Baer.
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