Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 of life.

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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