Origin of Date Palm Trees
Before the Babylonians, the City of Sumer at the lower Euphrates valley appears to have been the center of date cultivation in ancient civilizations. Today the Euphrates Tigris delta still has millions of date palm trees. In the ancient days, a deciding factor was probably the natural flooding of the delta where high tides raise the water level and then reseed, thereby causing a flooding of the date palm groves without human intervention.
In the ancient Code of Hammurabi, when the greatest king of the first Babylonian Dynasty was in power, the legal code was based primarily on Sumer's legal code. The code provided for detailed records on the date palm tree and its cultivation. The code goes into great detail in addressing the renting, sales, and cultivation of the date palm tree.
These detailed records show how date palm tree orchard sharing schemes already existed back in ancient times. The landowners for example where permitted to lease their land to a tenant farmer who would then have access to the young date palm tree suckers, or offshoots. The owner would then wait four years until the new trees started producing date fruit. During the four year period the tenant farmer would take care of the date palm tree orchards. After the four years they would both share equally in the production of dates. The typical date palm tree would produce about 100 pounds of dates.
Besides the date crop there were secondary crops that were grown in between. In modern Algeria, secondary crops include oranges, apricots, nuts and vegetables. In ancient Babylonia it have been sesame, grain, and clover, all of which the tenant farmer could keep for himself. The four year period shows that offshoots must have been planted, because trees from seed take eight to ten years to produce their first good crop.
The Importance Of The Date Palm Tree
The importance of the date palm tree in ancient Babylonia was show in its laws which prohibited destroying date palm trees without the consent of the owner. In ancient times the punishment for destroying a date palm tree without the consent of the owner was a fine equivalent about a half pound of silver. This was obviously intended to be a strong deterrent.
Date Palm Density In Ancient Babylonia
In ancient Babylonia the density of date palm trees was very low. The date palm tree was required to be planted about every 30 feet, which would limit the density to about 50 date palm trees per acre. Even so, a date palm orchard was about twice as valuable as any other orchard.
Political Importance of Date Palm Trees
The date palm tree was so important that during wars were destroyed as a means of weakening an opponent. Date palm trees were a main source of food and the destruction of these trees meant a significant decrease in food to the opponent.
Spread of Date Fruit Cultivation
Date tree cultivation quickly spread from Mesopotamia to adjoining arid regions. In ancient Palestine adopted the cultivation practices and it spread rapidly. The number of date palm tree groves were large and the date palm tree influenced culture to such an extent that it is mentioned in the Bible. The date palm tree also became a very important symbol in ancient Palestine. Palm tree leaves were used in temple services during religious celebrations. They were carried as symbols of victory by kings. They were also used to hail Jesus during His entry into Jerusalem. Today Christian's have Palm Sunday and some priests consecrate palm leaves. Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night by eating a date.
In ancient times it did not take long for the date palm tree to be introduced to Egypt. Experts estimate the date palm tree was introduced to Egypt about five thousand years ago. The date quickly grew in importance and ancient carvings show priests irrigating palm trees and also offerings of the edible dates as a sacrifice. The pollination stage of the date tree was considered a very important part of the cultivation of dates and was imported into fertility religious rites. The periodical flooding of the Nile was quickly implemented into the cultivation of dates and the fruit thrived and continues to be an important part of the Egyptian economy. The number of date palm trees along the Nile River in Egypt is in the millions.
The date palm tree was introduced to the Sahara Desert about two thousand years ago by Semitic tribes. The camel was used extensively to travel the desert, because of their ability to carry heavy loads and travel great distances with minimum water. These camels are believed to have been instrumental in carrying date palm tree shoots which were later used to establish date groves in the desert. Oases throughout the desert were used to water the date groves. In the deserts of the North Africa this fruit, the edible date, became the bread of the desert for large populations.
The Extensive Use of Date Fruit and Date Palms
In ancient times the date palm tree has many other uses besides the edible date it produced. Among other things the palm's wood and fibers were used as building materials. The edible dates were also used in a variety of ways such as pressing soft dates to create a kind of honey or syrup. The Biblical references to the land of milk and honey are believed to be a reference to the date honey and not the honey produced by bees. Today Medjool Date honey is very common and Medjool date is so sweet it is considered nature's candy.
The wood is used to make the roofs of houses. The white date palm trees are used to manufacture baskets and other items. The dead date palm trees are used as hedges in gardens, and in the furnace of bakers, potters, and artisans. A juice called "legmi," a syrup like juice is consumed fresh or fermented into an alcoholic drink. The wood and leaves can provide timber and fabric for houses and for fences. The leaves are used to make ropes, cord, baskets, crates, and furniture. The bases of the leaves and the fruit stalks are used as fuel. The date fruit itself is used to produce date vinegar, date chutney or sweet pickle, date paste is made to use for bakery products and as additional flavoring for oranges, bananas, and almonds. There are dishes that used roasted date seeds and the heart of the date palm tree can be added to salads. Even in modern day the date palm tree is often the only available staple food for the inhabitants of some desert and arid lands. To many North Africa and Middle Eastern parts the date fruit is still a vital food. During the 1991 Gulf War the surrendering Iraqis offered date fruit in exchange for water, and for many the date fruit was the only food available to the Iraqis during the war.
Among Arab tales there is one story in the Qur'an that describes Mary as experiencing sharp labor pains while near the base of a palm tree, and when she was suffering greatly Jesus spoke from inside her body and ordered her to shake a date tree and eat the dates. She did as instructed and ripe dates fell on her lap, even though it was not the season for dates. She ate the dates and her pain went away. "Shake the trunk of the palm tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee. Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened!" (Qur'an 19:25-26). Mohammed the Islamic prophet advises that all expectant mothers nourish themselves with dates. The reason being that it will increase the quantity and quality of her milk to feed to her new born child, and apparently modern medicine concurs. The fruit is also believed to have other medicinal values.
One ancient Muslim story describes edible dates as the primary food created by God to nourish Adam in the garden of Eden. The palm tree is also believed to have been the primary material used to build Mohammed's home. The Qu'ran references the date fruit about 26 times.
The Date Palm Tree
All palms, including the date palm, belong to a group of plants that are known as monocotyledons. These plants include grasses, lilies, and orchids. The most common feature about these plants is that they all start with a single leaf when they germinate from a seed. During the first year a date palm tree looks more like grass than a date palm. There are many different varieties of date palms. The Mallortiea does not exceed 2 feet and then there is the Ceroxylon of Colombia which can measure two hundred feet. Thickness of the palm tree can vary from a few inches to a several feet. There palms that grow like vines for several hundred feet and others grow like bushes. Palms can grow in many different habitats. From seashores, to the mountains, to the deserts. Some bear tiny fruit the size of a berry and some 40 pound double coconuts. Even though we more commonly referred to palms as palm trees they are not trees and the characteristics of palms are very different trees.
The vast majority of palms do not have branches, but there are some palms that do have branches, such as the palm commonly known as the gingerbread tree, and called the African doum palm which does produce branches. The gingerbread tree name came about because the pulp of the fruit resembles the gingerbread.
Palm trunks can be smooth, rough, and pitted. When new leaves grow the old die and sometimes fall off. In some palms the leaves do not fall and form a protective exterior. Unlike a tree the trunk of the palm has no annual growth rings. The palm leaves are of two different types some resemble a fan and some resemble a feather, called palmate and pinnate. The longest palm leaves measure about 65 feet and the broadest measure about sixteen feet. The flowers are always very small. Almost every single palm fruit regardless of size contains just one seed. There are about 4,000 different species of palms and about 1,200 grow in the Western Hemisphere. There are only 14 species of palms that are native to the United States. The palmettos are the most common and grow in South Carolina and Florida. The heart of the cabbage palmetto has an edible bud which is often sold as the heart of palm. Some of the palmetto fibers are used to make brushes and whisk brooms which are resistant to hot water and caustic materials.
Modern Cultivation of Date Fruit
In the wild the date palm tree pollinates naturally, but production is low. Artificial pollination increases production substantially. The date palm tree grows from seed, but there is an even distribution of males and females. For farming purposes the distribution ratios are not efficient as it takes one male to pollinate about fifty females. The date palm tree also produces off shoots which can be cut and planted which produce fruit about five years earlier than from seed. This also allows for the control of the male to female ratio. The off shoots can be all male or female depending on the needs. Offshoots are only produced under certain conditions. There is a strong correlation between the amount of fruit produced and the number of shoots produced. When there is an increase in date palm shoots there is a decrease in fruit and the same is true in reverse if there is an increase in fruit there is a decrease date palm shoots. If at least one offshoot is left on the tree it continues to produce offshoots, but if all the offshoots are removed the date tree will not produce anymore. The quantity and quality of the date palm fruit is also affected by the number of fruit clusters. Too many clusters will produce poor quality fruit so the date clusters need to be removed.
Ripening Date Fruit
The date fruit needs approximately six months to ripen. In ancient civilizations in the middle east there were different stages of ripening. These four stages of date ripening were named kimri, khalal, rutab, and tamar. The kimri stage is where the dates are green, at the khalal stage the dates have grown to their maximum size and turn yellowish or reddish depending on the specific variety of date. The date begins to soften and loses the bright color at the rutab stage. The fruit is ripe at the tamar stage.
Classifications of Date Fruits
Dates are classified as soft, semidry, and dry. The dry dates are the bread dates commonly used in the middle east for everyday consumption. The sweeter dates are used as a dessert in the Middle East as well as the United States. Among the sweeter dates is the Medjool Date which is considered the king of dates and which was once reserved for royalty.
Handling of Date Fruit
An author by the name of Henry Simon in North African Diary of 1913 described the handling of Rhars dates in Arabic countries including Tunisian and Algerian Oases were the growers trampled the soft dates with their unclean bare feet on animal skins. Another type of date which was dry called the Meshi Degla was transported by camel in pairs. The sacks were left on the ground which as often soiled with animal manure from donkeys and camels and then reused again. The Deglet Noor was treated substantially different, because it was primarily an export product. It was packed in wooden crates and shipped to other countries.
Dominant Cultivation Of Date Fruit Varieties
There are many other varieties of dates grown throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but most are not cultivated for export or in large quantities. In Algeria and Tunisia the three main varieties are the Rhars (vigorous grower), the dry Meshi Degla(purgative seedling) which is a basically a bread date; and the semidry Deglett Noor (date of light). In the United States the Deglet Noor is one of the dates commonly cultivated.
One of the rarest and most prized varieties is the Menakher (Nose Date) which as never sold for export and the few palms that existed where jealously guarded by their growers.
Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and the other Persian Gulf Countries have their own distinct varieties. Many of those varieties are never exported, because they are soft dates. Among them is Hayany of Egypt; the Khalas(quintessence) of Arabia; and the Barhee, Halawy(the sweet), and Khadrawy(the verdant) of Iraq and Syria. A few of these dates are also grown in California in small quantities.
The Medjool date of Morocco is known for its unusually large size and it is renowned for its flavor. The Medjool date is a large and dark, and can grow to about three inches and even though it is classified as a soft date it is much firmer and more resilient than other soft dates and handles better. The Medjool date made its way to the United States through the United States Department of Agriculture. There was a disease in Morocco that was spreading quickly among the Medjool date palm trees and a Moroccan official gave some shoots to a representative from the USDA which in turn were taken and planted in California. The Medjool is now thriving in California as one of the top varieties of dates.
Date Fruit Cultivation
Date palm trees can yield from about 100 to 300 pounds of dates per tree. One of the most important factors is the amount of water they receive. The date palm can absorb a lot of water. Date palms can also resist very cold weather and have known to survive in subfreezing temperatures. The date palms are usually insect and parasite free, but can be attacked from time to time by fungi and scale insects. The cultivation of dates was very labor intensive and even to date continues to be labor intensive and dangerous. Before planting enormous holes were dug measuring eight feet deep and were eight feet square. Often the holes were dug on hard materials including limestone. The holes were then filled with manure and top soil for about five feet and the remainder was slowly filled around the newly planted date palm tree. The date palm was below ground level, but this allowed for better watering and it provides protection from the hot winds and the sun. Arabs traditionally harvested by cutting the entire cluster, but many American farmers hand picked each individual date as the fruit ripens. Prior to harvesting in many American farms the dates are first prepared by cutting down the amount of fruit on each cluster to allow the air to circulate and permit more uniform ripening of the date. This means that the date will necessarily cost more cultivate and harvest in American farms and will necessarily result in a higher price. Generally speaking imported dates are not as good as American grown dates, because of the more labor intensive cultivating techniques used on American farms, but this is not always the case.
Date Fruit Cultivation And Water
The date palm tree can grow in many different areas, but for the date palm to produce quality fruit it is necessary that the climate be one of very little rain and the climate also needs to be hot. At the same time the date palm requires large amounts of water. In many American farms the date fruit from the date palm tree is protected against possible rain, birds and insects by placing a parafined paper bag around the date cluster. This done because of the ease with which rain can ruin dates. There is an opening around the wrapping to permit air to circulate inside the wrapping to allow the dates to ripen properly. In California date farms a bell shaped paper cloak is placed around the fruit. Almost California date farms utilize this technique to protect the date. California grown dates can be seen with this seemingly peculiar wrapping throughout the Coachella Valley. The Medjool Date as well as other varieties is protected using this same technique throughout the Coachella Valley. Upon reaching the final stage and fully ripening the date is no longer as susceptible to rain and humidity. A few date varieties are much more vulnerable to moisture and usually not economical to cultivate and therefore not cultivated on a commercial scale or at all. In the United States the Rhars date is not grown commercially in the United States because of its susceptibility to damage from moisture or rain. Soft dates are much more difficult to handle and cultivate and require extensive care and handling.
Why Date Fruit Is Not Grown From Seed
Dates can be grown from offshoots and seeds, but are almost always grown from offshoots. The primary reason is that there is a shorten time period to harvest if the date is grown from an off shoot and the date palm from seed rarely has the same qualities as the parent plant. The seed can in fact be used successfully for creating new varieties of dates, but just as it can create a superior variety it can also create an inferior variety.
History of the Date Part III