It wasn’t that long ago pomegranates were viewed by many U.S. consumers as a holiday decoration, something to be placed in a cornucopia with gourds and thrown away after Thanksgiving.

“More than half of them probably weren’t eaten,” said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Sonoma, Calif.-based Pomegranate Council.

California had roughly 2,000 acres of pomegranates before Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful — armed with research related to the health benefits of the fruit — started planting on a large scale more than a decade ago. Today, the state has roughly 30,000 acres and accounts for more than 90% of the nation’s production, Tjerandsen said.

“About 15 years ago, 5% of people in U.S. had ever tried a pomegranate,” said Jeff Simonian, sales manager for Fowler, Calif.-based Simonian Fruit Co. “Now it’s up to (about) 19%. That’s still a small percentage of people who have every tried pomegranate. It’s even lower in the Midwest.”

The industry is trying to educate people about the fruit so that number will continue to climb. Many grower-shippers provide retailers with point-of-sale information related to how to use a pomegranate.

“How do you open this, and how do you eat this are common questions,” said Simonian, whose company’s website features a video that shows consumers how to open the fruit in water, allowing the seeds, or arils, to sink and the rind to float.

“It’s a way to open them without making a mess,” he said. “There’s a million things you can do with pomegranates. Anything you can do with a cranberry you can do with pomegranate.”

And what about Pom Wonderful, the company that represents more than 40% of the state’s acreage? Tjerandsen credited Pom Wonderful for initially getting the word out to consumers, chefs and the media about the health benefits of the fruit, which offers antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamin C, potassium and fiber.

Still, many consumers aren’t sure about what to do with the fruit.

“The goal is to get consumers comfortable with pomegranates, remove the barrier to trial, so they aren’t intimidated by opening them, and learn how accessible and easy they are to use as a healthy snack or as a sweet burst of flavor to any meal,” said Michael Solomon, president of Pom Wonderful. “We’ve found when consumers get over the initial barrier of trying pomegranates, they tend to become repeat purchasers over the course of the season, so we invest in retail store promotions, such as ‘how to open’ brochures on our branded bins and website.”

Ray England, vice president of marketing for D.J. Forry Co., Reedley, Calif., said imports have helped pomegranates become available for three-fourths of the year, and the fruit has slowly become more of a mainstream item, leading to more consumption.

“I think one thing has been proven over the last 15 years or so, and that is that if pomegranates are available and merchandised at retail with purpose, folks will buy them,” he said.

Whether or not California growers can keep pace with increasing demand could depend somewhat on Mother Nature and the state’s lingering drought.

“There’s a lot of demand,” said David Anthony, salesman for Ruby Fresh, Firebaugh, Calif.

“We’re looking for more growers and more fruit. The drought has had a significant effect. Some growers have pulled pomegranates out because they’ve had to use water on other crops like almonds and pistachios. The investment on those trees is high, and they’re trying to keep them going. Pomegranates are drought resistant, but fruit will be smaller, and there will be shorter supply than last year.”