Edible Palms: Date Palms
The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is possibly second only to the coconut palm in economic importance throughout the world. Phoenix dactylifera is just one of about 13 species of Phoenix, which were included in this previous article. Most of the other species are grown specifically for ornamental use, not for their dates (and most are inedible). Date palms have been around so long, no one is certain where they originated from. Some suspect the Middle East, where currently the majority of edible dates throughout the world are grown. However, other possible origins include the deserts of North Africa or more tropical areas of western Asia. Phoenix theophrasti may be the original date palm and through cultivation and manmade selection, the edible date palm came to be several thousand years ago (perhaps as early as 6000 years ago).
Phoenix theophrasti- possible original date palm?
Phoenix canariensis and Phoenix roebellenii are also commonly grown species of Phoenix, but do not make very edible dates. These trees are strictly ornamentals.
This Phoenix canariensis hybrid (left) and Phoenix rupicola (right) do produce fruits called dates, but they are of non-existant commercial quality
As mentioned in the article noted above, date palms are dioecious (male and female flowers are on two different plants). Most date farms have one male growing near dozens of females (ratio is usually about fifty to one). Dates are fertilized by wind pollination so the male plant is usually grown somewhere upwind of the females. Many date farms also fertilize the females by hand in order to develop new varieties of dates (a tedious and expensive procedure thanks to date oalms growing so tall). Though date palms can be grown from seed, as most palms are, in cultivation date palms are nearly exclusively grown from offshoots of an adult palm. This not only speeds up the process by many years, but also insures the palm will not only be a female (males don't make dates of course) but will also have the same fruit variety and quality of the original tree, something that cannot be guaranteed for palms grown from seed (who knows for sure who the father is, or how good the genetics of the pollen are?)
Phoenix dactylifera seedlings, left photo (by mustangman826); middle photo shows ornamental tree in a park suckering; right (or bottom) photo of a very old tree with several suckers allowed to mature to adult palms
A mature date palm (a cutting or offshoot can take up to 10 years to grow to maturity) can produce more than 250 pounds of dates a year, though most in cultivation are thinned out a bit so that the remainder of the fruit can grow as large and un-bruised as possible. Also all fruits are bagged early on to keep birds and insects from damaging them. This can be an expensive and dangerous procedure as date palms grow to nearly 80 feet tall and have long, stiff very sharp spines at the bases of their leaves.
Early date formation (left); and more mature dates in large clumps (not thinned since this is not a commercial tree- photo mustangman826- middle photo; close up of immature dates right (or bottom)
Though Phoenix dactylifera grow in a large variety of climates, including my backyard here in southern California, they generally do not make a good fruit crop except in arid, hot climates. One can see this species growing all over Hawaii, but rarely are there any edible dates on these palms. Some areas of Florida manage to produce a small crop of dates yearly, but nothing compared to the crops grown in the arid Middle East, North Africa or the California deserts. One of the reasons dates do not produce good fruits in most tropical climates is the rain tends to damage or rot the fruits. In California there is virtually no rain the entire growing season. Though date palms are incredibly drought-tolerant, a lot of water is needed to support a hefty date crop. So irrigation is generally a must.
Ornamental plantings in tropics (left- unusually blue colored tree); middle showing technique of keeping leaves upright right after transplanting (coastal California) and landscape palms near Disneyland, California (right). Though all these will produce dates if pollinated, they would not be of edible quality due to excessive humidity and not enough heat
Date palms in Coachella Valley- these are all edible date producers
Dates are a staple of many Middle Eastern diets and the large variety of dates allow for dates to be grown as desert foods, main dishes in breads and meats, and as fodder for animals. In the U.S., dates are also a big business in the Coachella Valley (southern California) and to a lesser extent, south Florida, Arizona and Texas. Dates are certainly not a big staple in the U.S., but they are a popular dessert and treat often sold seasonally (particularly around the New Year holiday). Traditionally dates appear to be associated with the winter holidays, finding their way into fruit and nut boxes and gift baskets. This is because dates grow all year and ripen at the end of autumn, just in time for Christmas and the other winter holidays. Many dates can only be ordered or found in stores this time of year unless one lives in the tropics where some dates grow all year round.
Date sampler available around winter holidays
Dates are generally sold sans preservatives and somewhat chilled. They do not last long out of the refrigerator without getting hard, dry and eventually moldy. However with refrigeration they can last weeks, and frozen, years (reportedly with very little change in taste or texture). They are full of potassium and smaller amounts of other nutrients as well. Though touted as a health food, I seriously doubt the massive quantities of sugar in these fruits make them acceptable parts of healthful diet except in very small quantities. However, dates do have a variety of other beneficial effects including acting as a laxative (this might NOT be beneficial if one is not expecting this effect), aiding in the treatment of intestinal disturbances (a very broad generalization I would find hard to argue with), and supposedly as an aid to treating alcohol intoxication. Other reported benefits include treatment of impotence, sterility, dystocia prevention, postpartum depression, weight gain, heart problems (another overly broad category), diarrhea (wow, as well as constipation!), anemia, sore throats, fever and abdominal cancer.
I cannot seem to find a definitive answer as to how many varieties there are, but there are at least 100 known cultivars. See this Wikipedia article on date palms for a fairly long list of culitvars. The most commonly grown dates in the U.S. are listed below. Date varieties fall into three categories including soft, semi-dry and dry dates (varying in their degree of sugar content- the more sugar, the softer). The latter are referred to as bread dates and are rarely eaten alone due to their lack of sugar and hard, dry consistency. Most date names are Arabic, as that is their origin. However, some California date growers have begun hybridizing their own dates and coming up with very ‘American' names (like Brunette and Blonde).
'Barhi' dates (aka 'Barhee')- these are ovoid to nearly spherical fruits with thick flesh and are very sweet (some say the sweetest) and soft. I find them somewhat chewy, but have to admit they are one of the best-tasting of the dates (though my ability to tell dates apart is somewhat naïve and limited).
Barhi Dates grown in California
'Brunette' dates- these are dates hybridized in the U.S. and patented by Shields Date Gardens in the Cochella Valley. These are long, dark-skinned dates with a somewhat less sweet but distinctive flavor. I like this variety in part because the pit seems to fall away from the fruit easily, making them easier to eat.
'Brunette' dates grown by Shield Date Gardens, California
'Deglet noor'- this is a popular semi-dry date and probably the most commonly sold date in the U.S. It is a long, thin, orange-brown date that is somewhat chewy, moderately sweet drupe (fruit) that is used in all sorts of date recipes and candies. I found some candies and sweets with this date as the main ingredient, but despite its being the major date produced by California, it was indeed a difficult date to find in most stores that sell dried fruits.
pitted 'Deglet noor' dates grown in California found at local grocers
'Halaway' (aka Halawi or Holwah) dates are soft, wrinkled dates dark golden in color and was the original date brought over from the Middle East for cultivation. However it is no longer that common and all my searches through dozens of markets and specialty stores failed to come up with one of these dates. I did get some on line and they are one of the more flavorful and not excessively sweet dates- dark colored and oblong in shape.
Halawi Dates from California
'Khadrawy' dates are also soft dates that are reddish brown and have a caramel texture and very sweet flavor. Most of these are still imported, but some are now grown locally. I was unable to find one of these for sale, either, but I was able to order them online. These are moderately wrinkled dates and not terribly unique in my opinion.
'Khadrawy' dates from California
'Medjool' dates are quickly becoming the most popular variety and are easily the second most commonly grown variety in the U.S. When one looks for dates in the grocery stores or specialty shops, this is most likely what variety one will find. With the exception of several stores, this was the only variety of date I could find for sale. These are exceptionally large, soft and incredibly sweet dates (to me, a bit too sweet) and their popularity have led to the term "Cadillac of dates."
Medjool Dates from California found at local grocers; photo on right shows Medjool dates up top and for comparison, Deglet Noor in the middle and Zahidi at the bottom
'Thoory' dates are the bread dates (dry) and are very chewy dates (I could not find any of these for sale in my area), are a staple diet of nomadic tribes in many desert areas of the old world. These dates are not sticky and can be carried around in one's pocket, making them a useful snacking fruit. I could not find these for sale locally, but one can order them online.
'Zahidi' dates are sometimes referred to as golden dates and I did locate some of these in local markets in my area. Zahidi dates are grown primarily in the Middle East, but also in China as well as in the Coachella Valley now. This is a semi-dry date that is moderately sweet (a bit sweeter than 'Deglet noor') and brownish-yellow in color. It is less cylindrical than some of the other common dates--more oval. Date sugar comes from this variety.
Zahidi dates from California, found at local grocers
For those who want to visit southern California and learn more about dates, there is a Riverside County Date Festival every year in the late winter (February 12-21 this upcoming year 2010). For more info, go to the DateFest.org website.
scenes from date festival
For more reading on dates and Phoenix dactylifera, see these following links: