The date palm, also known as Phoenix dactylifera, has been cultivated by man for at least six thousand years. Date palms are mentioned in the Bible and the Quran and their leaves were carried as symbols of victory by Kings in ancient times. Date palm leaves were also used to hail Jesus during His entry into Jerusalem. Today Christian’s have Palm Sunday, and Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night by eating dates. Islam regards the date palm tree as the “tree of life.”
There are many other palms that produce edible drupes or dates, however their “dates” are almost all seed with very little flesh and most are quite small. Only phoenix dactylifera – the true “date palm” produces the large edible dates that are cultivated and sold today. The female Phoenix dactylifera palm produces dates from 1 to 3 inches long with varying degrees of sweetness. There are hundreds of named varieties of Phoenix dactylifera date palms, and one of the most famous is the large soft Medjool date palm, while the most widely grown date is the semi-dry Deglet Noor date palm. A few of the other famous date palm varieties which are available in California are the Barhi date palms, the Zahidi date palm, and the Halawi date palm. Each of these date palm varieties produce delicious dates with distinct differences in flavor, moisture content, and size.
California Dates have been growing in the desert oasis of the Coachella Valley of southern California for more than a century. A place where date palms flourish in high summer temperatures and low humidity with minimal rainfall during the summer and fall.
Since ancient beginnings, Dates have been a significant source of nutrition. Today, dates are labeled by many as a superfood; a fresh, natural whole fruit that offers every body valuable nutrients and pure sweetness.
Versatile with many sweet and savory foods, Dates are a perfect natural alternative to added sugars. While it may be difficult to imagine a thick-skinned, wrinkly piece of fruit being held in such high regard, dates were already appreciated and commercially cultivated in the Middle East as far back as 4000 B.C. Their popularity later spread to Southeast Asia, North Africa and Spain.
The vast desert of California’s Coachella Valley is home to one of the largest concentrations of fresh dates in the world. The valley stretches from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, and farmers there work hard to produce some 35 million pounds of the fruit annually. That represents 95 percent of the U.S. crop.
The arid climate of the Coachella Valley is perfect for dates, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose it in the 1890s as one of several spots in California and the South to try out the new crop. During that time, researchers introduced offshoots of several varieties obtained from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq. Those experimental plantings proved particularly successful in the Coachella Valley and before long, dates had become a profitable fruit to grow and sell in the area.
The date is one of the most expensive crops to produce and one of the main reasons for that is the way they reproduce. Females bear the fruit and males produce pollen, but unfortunately, Mother Nature made no adequate provision to pollinate the female date blooms. Natural pollination by the wind is not efficient, so hand pollination, practiced for thousands of years, is one of man’s oldest agricultural techniques. Hand pollination is performed by a dedicated group of skilled workers called Palmeros, a Spanish term of respect. Each spring the fearless Palmeros must collect pollen from the male trees, then climb all of the female trees and hand pollinate the flowers with powder puff-like applicators.
But the real work comes during harvest season, which occurs between September and December in the Coachella Valley. Among the tall palm trees, Palmeros first climb to the very top of a ladder. Then, suspended at the end of a heavy chain harness, they swing around the tree just below the green canopy of leaves, hacking off stalks laden with dates. The Palmeros toss the bunches down into large bins, where workers remove the fruit so it can be sent off for processing and packaging.
In addition to pollinating, pruning and harvesting, palmeros must also wrap inverted paper cones over the fruit clusters to protect them from damaging rains and to keep out insects, rodents and birds. At the Shields date orchards, Palmeros spend a total of about 100 days a year climbing up and down palm tress that are roughly 80 feet tall. It is definitely not work for the faint of heart.
“Many of the employees who work within the industry provide a unique job skill that can’t be found at a local EDD office,” said the date commission’s Cooper. “The Palmero requires specific skills that are traditionally passed down from generation to generation.”
Cooper adds that approximately 2,500 local jobs are tied directly to the date industry, which has become vital to the valley’s economic standing. Dates are number two in total category value among agriculture statistics for the Coachella Valley.
History of Dates – An old Arabic legend tells of the Date palm’s creation: “After God had finished molding Man from Earth; He took the remaining material and shaped it inot a date palm which he placed in the Garden of Paradise”.
Date palms and their fruit have been very instrumental to humans. The Mesopotamians recognized the tree’s versatility and value; its sweet fruit became an essential part of their diet. The palm offered “three hundred and sixty” uses including needles, thread, lumber, mattresses, rope, baskets and other household items; as well as food and beverage.
Feet in Water, Head in Fire – Date palms are said to thrive with their “feet in water and heads in the sun” because they need plenty of ground water to drink, but high heat and arid weather to produce fruit.
Growing and Harvesting Dates – Commercially grown date palms are from offshoots to ensure desired date variety qualities. The scientific name, Phoenix dactylifera, refers to feather palms that may grow more than 100 feet and live more than 200 years.
Pollination – Date palms are dioecious – having male and female trees. Females bear the fruit, males produce pollen. Commercial date gardens typically have one male and fifty female trees planted per acre. Natural pollination by wind is not efficient. Hand pollination is one of the oldest agricultural techniques. Using the mechanical pollination method, pollen collected from male flowers is mixed with a carrier such as flour, and is dusted on just-opened female flower clusters.
PER “GROWING DATES IN THE UNITED STATES – USDA and ROY NIXON
The date is one of the oldest cultivated tree crops. The earliest known records in Iraq (Mesopotamia) show that its culture was probably already established as early as 4,000 B.C. The date palm has also been in Egypt since prehistoric times, but its culture did not become important there until somewhat later than Iraq. From western Iran (Persia) across Arabia and North Africa, dates have long been a staple food for the native populations.
The date palm was introduced into the Western Hemisphere by the early Spanish missionaries, who planted date seeds around many of their missions. A few of these original palms or their offshoot survivors, dating from plantings in the late 18th or early 19th century, are still found in southern California, and below the Mexican border.
However, the dap climate of the coast, where most of the early missions were located, is not favorable to fruit production. It was not until seedlings planted in the hot interior valleys of California and southern Arizona in the middle of the 19th century began to bear that attention was attracted to the commercial possibilities of the date culture.
In 1890, the USDA arranged for a small importation of date offshoots, but these later proved to be inferior. It was not until 1900 and the years immediately following that offshoots of the better varieties were obtained by the Department plant explorers, who visited the date growing regions of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq. The Department, in cooperation with the State agricultural experiment stations, made experimental plantings, first in the Salt River Valley, Arizona and later in the Coachella Valley, California. These experiments attracted the attention of perspective date growers and led to several large commercial importations of offshoots, during 1911-22 from Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt, and acreage plantings were made possible.