Fruit With An Ancient Family Tree
The Palm Date, genus Phoenix of the family Palmae from which our ornamental and some tapped for sap palms come, is the one, dactylifera, that is cultivated for its fruit. To the French the date is known as dattier, Germans, dattel, Italians, datteri (or dattero), Spanish, datil, the Dutch, dadel, but the Portugese called it tamara.
Contrary to popular knowledge, it is not a tropical plant, but a sub-tropical plant, thriving in latitudes between fifteen and thirty, where after hot summers, drier cooler seasons descend, as humid rain rots the fruit. The fruit is delightfully sweet, with a nutty taste, and is loaded with heart health boosting potassium. Not only just eaten, but sugar, syrup and drinks are made and extracted from it. Paul Popenoe listed fifteen hundred varieties of this tree, and not surprisingly since it is one of the oldest plants on earth with around 50 million years, give or take, it is the oldest harvested and cultivated source of food, with archeological evidence from six thousand years ago in Arabia proving this fact. It is a staple diet for multiple millions of people, then, and today. And even where it cannot bear fruit, it can be an ornamental. It can take very alkaline soil, and even salty, up to six thousand milligrams per liter, though more than two thousand mg/L inhibits the full fruition, but the Saudi's have a traditional claim for sure-fire seed sprouting from their burial in salt.
The date palm can grow from its beginning as a terminal bud to a possible height of a hundred twenty feet (36 meters), the average being closer to 60 feet, on a base of vertical pointing overlapping stable woody leaves. Capping the plant are rigid leaves, sometimes having a length of ten feet, on big spiney stalks. It can take some below freezing temperatures, but too much causes growth and fruit production problems, and it can take the hottest temperatures that exist naturally (except for geothermal) on earth. The Arabs have a saying that date palms like their feet in water, but their heads in Hell demonstrating their roots ability to withstand waterlogged conditions.
The specialized protective sheath on usually separate trees for the cream colored male (earlier blossoming) or white female flower bunches on flowering/fruiting spathe (or spadice, or spadix) holds twenty five to more than a hundred strands, (less than a foot long on the males, more than two feet on females) holding as much as ten thousands of flowers. The only natural pollination is from a small wasp in North Africa which did not export successfully elsewhere, thus hand pollination by shaking two or three days after the flowers open is the only efficient method. Dried pollen can be kept up to three months at room temperature. After about 10 years, more or less, frond-like sprouts approximately 15 foot long (five meters)
After about three years they can finally produce fruit that is a drupe containing one elongated notched seed . The fully mature tree twelve years later can give up to 150 pounds of fruit a year. Of the many sizes, flesh firmness consistency and color they are usually green when unripe then mature progressively from yellow, through red, and then brownish. The fruits ripen at different times depending on the species and the warmth of the climate. There is a thinning procedure reducing weight to insure proper flowering in the next year. The fruit will not be ripened if the tree is grown in too cool a zone. Of the more than a thousand varieties, of two types, soft and semi-dry, the most noted are, the Deglet Noor a late season semi-dry, the Barhee Soft late, the Medjool Soft Early, the Zahidi semi-dry mid-season, and the Khalasa Soft mid season. Even though the soft are delectable, the other has a higher sucrose content. Harvest in America is between August and November. Since planting from seeds gives a fifty-fifty chance to produce a male plant (with no dates), the propigation is done with offshoots which can take up to eight years to produce. Production can continue for fifty years.
Offshoots are cut off (a risky business with a heavy foot-wide chisel) the parent plant after three years, and take a year to develop their own root. There is a leaf stripping and tying and planting thirty feet apart in late spring. They need only one male for about twenty-five females. (Better odds than Surf City -- there was only two girls for every guy.) There is a cost prohibition with offshoots is the transportation and more importantly the several months long quarantining requirements and methyl bromide fumigation in expensive nurseries. The tissue culture method takes seven years from test tube to first crop. Irrigation and some fertilization will help increase crops. Each variety takes specialized handling for all phases, fumigating, cleaning, grading, ripening, drying, packing and storage.
Historical and Geographical Background
There are many exotic legends and references to this delicacy
and its artistic praise on such artifacts as coins and bas relief. The lands around the Persian Gulf
, up through the Euphrates
are the traditional societies that first mastered the growing and harvesting. In fact, Iraq
, in the heart of that region, especially Basra, is a date production leader still today with twenty million trees putting out more than half a million tons of their fruit. Dates went along with the spread of Islam
, who said:
There is among trees one that is pre-eminently blessed, as is the Muslim among men; it is the date palm.
This phenomenon from Saudi Arabia, (which by 1980 harvests their half million dates from eleven million trees aided by modern efficient techniques subsidized by oil money} was the impetuous of date growing around North Africa, and it is a main means of the diet of Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Sudanese. Abdel-Gelil tried to get Suckna to surrender by his siege by chopping down all their date trees, but could only manage to destroy less than half of their hundred and twenty thousand. The West African groves can only produce the dry sugary types.
Northwestern India was cultivated with 26 varieties in 1869 by Bonavia, (harvested at Saharanpur and the Fruit Research Center) and Punjab Economic Botanist Milne helped Pakistan with their date cultivation. Bohol Philippines is having success, as well as a few dry locations in Australia.
Argentina, the dry regions of Brazil, and especially Venezuela's Margarita Island will provide date production. They are grown in Peru, also. The 69 out of 75 plants brought to Jamaica in 1899 were planted in Hope Gardens in 1901, but that hope was dashed when October rains rotted the mature bunches for which they had waited so long. The Spanish conquistadors brought this crop to the New World; Florida and the Bahamas only sometimes provide viable fruits, but their introduction of this product to Mexico: Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja paid off at the latter location where by 1837 they could export. Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries planted seedlings in 1769, and Egyptian offshoots brought to that state in 1890 was the first of the serious commercial endeavors. The Popenoes made their foray into this market profitably with their growing sixteen thousand offshoots from Algeria, Arabia and Iraq in the Coachella Valley. The USDA today is still getting Deglet Noor clones from Biskra oasis in Algeria and others from the Near East for that location. They were introduced and did well in Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona as well. They thrive in Utah, Nevada and Texas; and the plant is found in the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississipi and even in more northern states and Canada --if protected.
Even though dates are eighty percent sugar, five dates will provide forty five grams of heart helping potassium, a great deal of fiber and only a hundred and fifteen carbohydrate calories. Those that eat these regularly, i.e. Bedouins, have shown lower rates of heart disease and cancer. Now one does not have to feel guilty after having a second slice of the date nut bar.
Threats to Date Palms
Besides too low temperatures, wrong wet seasons, and overly akaline or saline soils, there are some other perils this tree faces: Insects and birds attack the fruit, and worms go after the roots, while, fortunately the smut that attacks the leaves has little consequence.
Source: date agricultural websites from metacrawler
I have germinated a date pit the summer of 2005, (taken from a supposedly 'pitted' date.) P.S. Though that above seedling's gone, since then, now (2011) I've got a couple more. Protected from the winter inside. They grow slow, slowly, slowest, like oak.