Date palms


Date palm Phoenix dactylifera © Jennifer Hope-Morley

History of date palms

The Date palm Phoenix dactylifera, is a member of the palm family, Arrecaceae (or Palmae) and is probably the most ancient cultivated plant in the world. It is mentioned in both the Quran and the Bible but the exact origin of the Date palm is considered to be lost in Antiquity.

The Date palm Phoenix dactylifera, probably originated in ancient Mesopotamia (current day Iraq) and has been cultivated since ancient times, possibly as early as 4,000 BC.

The term “dactylifera” is derived from the Greek dactylor meaning finger.

The Date palm is a widely distributed species occurring in diverse geographic regions. Dates have been a main source of income and a staple food for the local populations in the irrigable deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. The spread of date cultivation reached South West Asia and southern Spain, and it was the Spanish who first introduced the date palm to the New World.

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Date palm Phoenix dactylifera © Jennifer Hope-Morley

What is a Date palm?

Although commonly referred to as a palm tree, the Date palm is actually a true palm and not a tree. It is a diploid, aperennial plant that is dioecious (having separate female and male trees) and monocotyledonous (bears only one embryonic leaf).

The Date palm forms an unbranched trunk, strongly marked with the pruned stubs of old leaf bases and grows to a height of between 15-25 metres. To support its elevated vertical growth, the root system is highly developed and reaches deep for water resources. The stem terminates in a crown of leaves that are 3-5 metres long with spines on the petiole (leaf stalk) and pinnately compound leaflets (arranged along a central axis).

Floral spikes branch from the axils of leaves that emerged the previous year.

The fruit is a drupe (stone fruit) known as a date with a single seed. Dates are usually oblong but may vary in shape, size and colour depending on the conditions of culture. The fruits are usually arranged on spikelets that are attached to a central stalk to form a bunch.

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Date palm Phoenix dactylifera © Jennifer Hope-Morley

Palm pollination

As the Date palm is a dioceious plant, pollination is a complicated process in date cultivation. To grow the number of male plants needed to pollinate the females would make date farming uneconomical. The female palms are therefore pollinated artificially.

Date palms require a long, intensely hot period with little rain and low relative humidity during the period from pollination to harvest and need abundant water either drawn from deep in the soil through a well-established root system or surface irrigation. An old saying describes the Date palm as growing with “its feet in water and its head in fire”.

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Date palm Phoenix dactylifera © Jennifer Hope-Morley

Ripening of the Date palm fruit

The date fruit goes through four distinct ripening stages termed “kimri”, “khalal”, “rutab” and “tamar” that represent the immature green, the mature full coloured, soft brown and hard raisin-like stages of development respectively.

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Propagation of Date palms

Methods of date propagation:

Date palm offshoot propagation: The traditional method of Date palm propagation is by offshoots. Offshoots develop from axillary buds on the stem near the soil surface in the early years of the palm. When the offshoots are between three to five years and have formed roots they can be removed and planted.

Date palm seed propagation: Propagation by seed is useful for breeding purposes but not for commercial plantations as the seeds do not reproduce the characters of the parents and, on average, 50% of the seedlings will be male. No method is currently available for detecting a seedling’s sex.

Date palm tissue culture propagation: As there are inherent limitations associated with conventional Date palm propagation using offshoots, tissue culture (micropropagation) has become an attractive alternative. It has many advantages over offshoot propagation, since it can produce hundreds of new plants in a short time. Plant tissue culture is now being used in many Date palm regions.

Palms begin to bear fruit in 4 to 5 years with full maturity at around 30 years. Palms are known to live as long as 150 years, but as fruit production declines, in commercial culture they are replaced at an earlier age.

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Unripe dates © Jennifer Hope-Morley

The uses of Date palms

Almost every part of the Date palm is used and its food and industrial products play an important role in the rural communities and economies of many developing countries.

Dates as food:

For the nomad, the date meant survival as it is a food with a very high nutritive value and keeps a very long time when dried. It is a staple food in many countries where it is grown.

The multi uses of dates:

As well as being eaten fresh or dried for human consumption, dates can also be pressed for their juice, used to make a beverage, syrup, jam, jelly and vinegar. It is said that in earlier times boiling date syrup was used as an offensive defensive weapon to pour onto attackers attempting to scale fort walls or embankments!

Unused dates:

Unused dates do not go to waste as they are often dehydrated, crushed and mixed with grains to make feed for animals. Seeds are often roasted, crushed and mixed with flour and the oil from the seeds can be manufactured into soap. Terminal buds (known as “palm hearts”) can be eaten and the young leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

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References: Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN; Encyclopaedia Britannica; HortScience, American Society for Horticultural Science; College of Agricultural and Food Sciences, King Faisal University; Aramco World Magazine; Dr Frederique Aberlenc, Date palm cultivation for the development of desert areas.