Nature Bulletin No. 511-A December 15, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
When the wise men from the east, guided by a mysterious new star,
traveled to Jerusalem and thence to Bethlehem where they worshipped
the infant Jesus and presented Him with gifts, you can be sure that, in
addition to gold and frankincense and myrrh, they carried dates as food
to sustain them on their long journey. The Date Palm had been
cultivated along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers since the time of the
Sumerians, 3000 years before the birth of Christ.
This tree, like the coconut palm, is unknown today in its wild state but
is believed to have originated in Ethiopia. In early times it was
abundant in Palestine and the scientific name, Phoenix, given to the
date palm by the Greeks, may be due to the fact that they first saw it in
Phoenicia. The "tree of life, " variously referred to in the Bible, was
probably this palm.
Many regions in Asia and North Africa, such as the Persian, Arabian
and Sahara deserts, would be uninhabitable if it were not for the date
palms grown in their oases. Fresh or dried, dates are the staple food of
many Arab tribes and have been since the dawn of civilization. The
fruit, a drupe from one to three inches long, has sweet nutritious pulp
with a sugar content of more than 75 percent, a food value of about
1500 calories per pound, iron and other minerals, plus vitamins A and B.
Arabs have various ways of eating dates. One of the most popular is to
remove the stone or pit -- which is not a seed but contains the seed --
and replace it with a lump of butter. They are often eaten with milk,
fresh or curdled, from camels, goats and mares. Some tribes make a
paste, like our peanut butter, by pounding roasted locusts or
grasshoppers together with dates. Candied dates or dates preserved in
their own syrup, and dried dates, are staple foods. However, like the
coconut palm, the date is a tree of many other uses. Its trunk is used for
lumber; the long leaves for thatching roofs; the leaflets for baskets; the
fruit stalks for making rope: the buds in salads; the seeds for camel food
and charcoal the sap to make an intoxicating drink called "arrack"; the
fruit for syrup fermented into vinegar and alcohol. Verily, this is a tree
A date palm may bear fruit for a century or two and become 100 feet
tall with a straight stout trunk very shaggy because of the stubs of old
leaf stems. Every year, at the top, it puts on 10 or more feather-like
fronds, each from 12 to 20 feet long and having several hundred
leaflets. The old ones gradually die and hang downwards for several
years unless removed. From the base it sends up numerous "suckers"
and, if allowed to grow untended, becomes a clump of many trunks
surrounded by a jungle of offshoots.
Date palms grow well in most kinds of soil, including some with a lot of
alkali, but they must have water -- by irrigation if it is not available
underground and a hot dry climate. Rainfall spoils the fruit. The male
and female flowers are borne on separate trees. Mature females have
from 6 to 20 clusters of yellow flowers with perhaps 10,000 blossoms
in each. If properly pollinated, a cluster produces from 20 to 40 pounds
of dates. Pollinated by winds being too uncertain, it is customary to
have one male tree for 100 females in a plantation and, as practiced by
the Arabs for untold centuries, pollinate them by hand. A branchlet of
male flowers is tied onto each female cluster.
Date palms, introduced into Florida and California by Spanish
missionaries long ago, are now grown commercially on a large scale in
Arizona and California.
Our next bulletin will appear January 12. Merry Christmas!
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Update: June 2012