Phoenix dactylifera: Date palm

Family: Arecaceae
Common name: Date palm, Date, Date palm tree

Date palms are one of the most ancient trees in cultivation, with evidence of its existence about 50 million years ago. Indus valley and Harappan civilizations also seem to have cultivated date palms according to fossil evidence.

Currently these palms are mostly grown in the Middle eastern countries, Africa, South America and few other Asian countries. Date palms have a single unbranched trunk that can grow to a height of 20-22 meters with a girth of 40-50 cms. Part of the root structure can be seen above soil.

The trunks look rough and knobby, with leftover leaf bases from fallen leaves. These leaf bases form a spiral pattern, which is typical of date palms.

Long leaves can grow to a length of 6 meters, with a thick rachis or mid-rib that starts as a spiny petiole connecting to the trunk. Date palm leaves are pinnate with about 120-150 leaflets that are about 30 cms long.

Date palms are dioecious, each tree being either male or female. An equal number of male and female trees are required to ensure complete pollination. But since male trees do not bear fruit, commercial growers keep only a few of them. And pollinate the female trees manually wherein laborers climb to the top of the tree using ladders and contraptions, to manually apply pollen to the flowers.

There are 3 major types of dates, the soft, semi-dry and dry. Date palms belong to the genus called Phoenix which has 15-20 wild date palm species. Date palms produce large inflorescences that are about 1-2 meters long with clusters of orange-red flowers.

Dates are oval to cylindrical in shape; 5-7 cms long and 2-3 cms in diameter. They range in color from deep red to deep yellow and a variety of shades in between. Dates contain a single oval seed with a distinct ridge along the length of it. They are about 2 cms long and half a centimeter in diameter.

The date palm trees start producing fruit when they are 4-5 years old, and reach full bearing potential at 10-15 years producing 40-80 kg of dates over multiple harvests.

Dates are eaten raw, dried or stuffed. Pitted dates, also called stoned dates are stuffed with dry fruits or even cream cheese and eaten as snacks. Dates are also used in sweet and savory dishes; in syrups, chutneys, sauces, jams, jellies, preserves, cakes, cookies and sweets.

They are dehydrated and ground to be used in livestock feed. Date syrups are used as substitutes for honey, in sweet recipes. Date palm leaves are used in religious processions in many countries. They are also used in thatching huts and in making baskets, mats and other woven materials.

Though dates is mostly water and carbohydrates, it also contains minerals like potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese and iron. They also contain abundant fiber that helps in reducing constipation and improving gut health.

Propagation is through seeds or suckers that grow around the parent plant.

Photo courtesy: Nicy Joseph, my lovely sister