The date-palm is considered to be the oldest tree ever cultivated by man. Date-farming is mentioned on Mesopotamian tablets from 3000 BC while the Qur’an has a reference to Mary sustaining herself on dates while birthing Jesus.
Now served on Arab airline menus, dates were once the basic diet for Bedouin living in the Middle East and North Africa. Their sticky golden fruit, a rich source of carbohydrate, fibre and minerals, was eaten by both men and animals. But while its fruit was a staple diet, the date palm had a myriad uses for the hardy nomads who always left one family member in charge of the trees during their annual migration.
The trunk, split in two and laid end to end, became an effective canal for conveying water to the oasis while the palm fronds, staked out in the sand, it became an enclosure for domestic stock and before oil brought undreamed of riches, Bedouin of the Arab Gulf states lived in barastis – huts made from woven palm branches. Arabian Sea fishermen further used a shasha canoe, likewise made of lashed date palm fronds.
Felling a date palm remains almost sacred act. Nothing is wasted when it crashes to earth. Raked out and combed, the fibrous heart is made into brooms and woven into ropes, stuffing for cushions, food and prayer mats. The wood chips are gathered for use as fuel; even the stones are saved and crushed for animal fodder —in Arabian Sands the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger writes how he once carelessly threw a date-stone into his camp-fire and his Bedouin guide leaned over and picked it out.
While wealthy Bedouin now drive Land Cruisers and communicate on mobile phones, the date palm remains deeply rooted in social customs among rural families. In the interior of Oman palms continue to count as bridal dowry and here, as well as in the Maghreb, a man’s wealth is still judged on the number of his trees.
While most trees cannot survive in the desert, liking sandy soil and able to endure temperatures of 50c, sees the date palm flourish with a healthy tree capable of producing an annual crop of up to 90 kilos. Some of the world’s biggest date plantations line the Shatt al Arab waterway in southern Iraq, whose wall-to-wall palms were remarked on by the celebrated 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta.
Date palms are dioecious meaning they have male and female organs borne on separate individuals of the same species – male palms produce pollen and female palms bear the fruit. Thousands of years ago natural pollination was carried out by the wind, birds and insects, but in commercial cultivation, each palm is fertilised by hand by an agile pollinator.
Among scores of different types of dates, the rich, golden, almost translucent variety known as deglat al nour is generally considered to be the ‘Queen of Dates’. The odd thing is that while Arabs enjoy dates throughout the year, in western societies they generally only appear at Christmas.