The Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is a palm in the genus Phoenix, extensively cultivated for its edible fruit. Due to its long history of cultivation for fruit, its exact native distribution is unknown, but probably originated somewhere in the desert oases of northern Africa, and perhaps also southwest Asia. It is a medium-sized tree, 15–25 m tall, often clumped with several trunks from a single root system, but often growing singly as well. The leaves are pinnate, 3–5 m long, with spines on the petiole and about 150 leaflets; the leaflets are 30 cm long and 2 cm broad. The full span of the crown ranges from 6–10 m.
The fruit is a drupe known as a date. They are oval-cylindrical, 3–7 cm long, and 2–3 cm diameter, and when unripe, range from bright red to bright yellow in colour, depending on variety. Dates contain a single seed about 2–2.5 cm long and 6–8 mm thick. Three main cultivar groups of date exist; soft (e.g. 'Barhee', 'Halawy', 'Khadrawy', 'Medjool'), semi-dry (e.g. 'Dayri', 'Deglet Noor', 'Zahidi'), and dry (e.g. 'Thoory'). The type of fruit depends on the glucose, fructose and sucrose content.
The Date Palm is dioecious, having separate male and female plants. They can be easily grown from seed, but only 50% of seedlings will be female and hence fruit bearing, and dates from seedling plants are often smaller and of poorer quality. Most commercial plantations thus use cuttings of heavily cropping cultivars, mainly 'Medjool' as this cultivar produces particularly high yields of large, sweet fruit. Plants grown from cuttings will fruit 2–3 years earlier than seedling plants.
Dates are naturally wind pollinated but in both traditional oasis horticulture and in the modern commercial orchards they are entirely pollinated manually. Natural pollination occurs with about an equal number of male and female plants. However, with assistance, one male can pollenize up to 100 females. Since the males are of value only as pollenizers, this allows the growers to use their resources for many more fruit producing female plants. Some growers do not even maintain any male plants as male flowers become available at local markets at pollination time. Manual pollination is done by skilled labourers on ladders, or in some areas such as Iraq they climb the tree using a special climbing tool that wraps around the tree trunk and the climber's back to keep him attached to the trunk while climbing. Less often the pollen may be blown onto the female flowers by wind machine.
Parthenocarpic cultivars are available but the seedless fruit is smaller and of lower quality.
Dates ripen in four stages, which are known throughout the world by their Arabic names kimri (unripe), khalal (full-size, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft), tamr (ripe, sun-dried). A 100 gram portion of fresh dates is a premium source of vitamin C and supplies 230 kcal (960 kJ) of energy. Since dates contain relatively little water, they do not become much more concentrated upon drying, although the vitamin C is lost in the process.
Dates are an important traditional crop in Iraq, Arabia, and north Africa west to Morocco and are mentioned in many places in the Quran. In Islamic countries, dates and yogurt or milk are a traditional first meal when the sun sets during Ramadan. Dates (especially Medjool and Deglet Noor) are also cultivated in southern California and Arizona in the United States.
Date palms can take 4 to 7 years after planting before they will bear fruit, and produce viable yields for commercial harvest between 7 to 10 years. Mature date palms can produce 80–120 kilograms (176–264 lbs) of dates per harvest season, although they do not all ripen at the same time so several harvests are required. In order to get fruit of marketable quality, the bunches of dates must be thinned and bagged or covered before ripening so that the remaining fruits grow larger and are protected from weather & pests such as birds.
A large number of date cultivars are grown. The most important are:
There are more than 100 known cultivars in Iraq. It should be noted, however, that a cultivar can have several names depending on the locality.
|Top Ten Dates Producers — 2005|
UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
Iraq used to be a major producer of dates but in recent years the amount of dates produced and exported has decreased, however they are still the world's major producer of dates with an oustanding 87% of the world's palm dates exports.
Dates can also be dehydrated, ground and mixed with grain to form a nutritious stockfeed. Dried dates are fed to camels, horses and dogs in the Sahara. In northern Nigeria, dates and peppers added to the native beer are believed to make it less intoxicating.
Young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart, though its removal kills the palm. The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to make bread in times of scarcity. The flowers of the date palm are also edible. Traditionally the female flowers are the most available for sale and weigh 300-400 grams. The flower buds are used in salad or ground with dried fish to make a condiment for bread.
In India, North Africa, Ghana, and Côte d'Ivoire, date palms are tapped for the sweet sap which is converted into palm sugar (known as jaggery or gur), molasses or alcoholic beverages. In North Africa the sap obtained from tapping palm trees is known as lāgbī (). If left for a sufficient period of time (typically hours-depending on the temperature) lāgbī easily becomes an alcoholic drink. Special skill is required when tapping the palm tree so that it does not die.
It is also used to make Jallab.
Date seeds are soaked and ground up for animal feed. Their oil is suitable for use in soap and cosmetics. They can also be processed chemically as a source of oxalic acid. The seeds are also burned to make charcoal for silversmiths, and can be strung in necklaces. Date seeds are also ground and used in the manner of coffee beans, or as an additive to coffee.
Date palm leaves are used for Palm Sunday in Christian religion. In North Africa, they are commonly used for making huts. Mature leaves are also made into mats, screens, baskets and fans. Processed leaves can be used for insulating board. Dried leaf petioles are a source of cellulose pulp, used for walking sticks, brooms, fishing floats and fuel. Leaf sheaths are prized for their scent, and fibre from them is also used for rope, coarse cloth, and large hats. The leaves are also used as a lulav in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Stripped fruit clusters are used as brooms. In Pakistan, a viscous, thick syrup made from the ripe fruits is used as a coating for leather bags and pipes to prevent leaking.
Date palm wood is used for posts and rafters for huts; it is lighter than coconut and not very durable. It is also used for construction such as bridges and aqueducts, and parts of dhows. Leftover wood is burnt for fuel.
Where craft traditions still thrive, such as in Oman, the palm tree is the most versatile of all indigeneous plants, and virtually every part of the tree is utilized to make functional items ranging from rope and baskets to beehives, fishing boats, and traditional dwellings.
Dates have a high tannin content and are used medicinally as a detersive (having cleansing power) and astringent in intestinal troubles. As an infusion, decoction, syrup, or paste, dates may be administered for sore throat, colds, bronchial catarrh, and taken to relieve fever and number of other complaints. One traditional belief is that it can counteract alcohol intoxication. The seed powder is also used in some traditional medicines.
A gum that exudes from the wounded trunk is employed in India for treating diarrhea and genito-urinary ailments. The roots are used against toothache. The pollen yields an estrogenic principle, estrone, and has a gonadotropic effect on young rats.