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The Date: A source of nourishment

Source : Roger Harrison | Arab News
02 Aug 2011

The date palm, originating, as best we know, in the Middle East, has proved such a successful plant and source of nourishment that it has spread across the planet.

Domesticated and bred to meet local conditions, the date palm was first recorded in the area around the Arabian Gulf and in ancient times was especially abundant in the arc between the Nile and Euphrates rivers. There is archeological evidence of cultivation in eastern Arabia as early as 4,000 B.C., making it one of the earliest agricultural products of human history.

Nomadic tribes planted date palms at oases during their peregrinations. Arabs brought the plant to Spain. It has been grown for centuries along the French Riviera, in southern Italy, Sicily and Greece, but the fruit they produce is not perfect. The date has traditionally been a staple food in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Arabian Peninsula and Iran.

Spanish explorers introduced the date into Mexico as seedlings. Date palms reached California in 1796. By 1837 they were being exported from Baja California. Dates prospered both there and in Arizona, and in 1912 Paul and Wilson Popenoe purchased 16,000 offshoots of selected cultivars, which are a variation of a species that has been produced through breeding and hybridization, from Algeria, eastern Arabia and Iraq. Dates became a profitable crop in California, especially in the Coachella Valley.

This remarkable tree can grow in poor soil and arid conditions that would kill most other food-bearing plants. It is largely this characteristic that has made it so valuable in its area of origin and has proved valuable into diversifying the original stock into over 1,500 different varieties worldwide.

A distinctive erect palm can top 30 meters and produce the characteristic spiny leaves that can reach six meters in length.

The date palm has separate male and female trees. Palms can be easily grown from seed, but only half the seedlings will be female and hence fruit bearing. Dates from seedling plants are often smaller and of poorer quality.

Often the sex of a date palm is difficult to determine and the tree can even change sex before reaching maturity. An examination of the flowers of a young tree may not necessarily be very helpful in revealing its eventual gender.

Most commercial plantations use cuttings of heavily cropping cultivars (cuttings for propagation), mainly medjool, as this variety produces particularly high yields of large, sweet fruit. A commercial advantage of this technique is that plants grown from cuttings will fruit two or three years earlier than seedling plants and be of the same sex as the parent tree which enables groves to be mainly filled with female trees (fruit bearing) at the ratio of about 40:1.

The young date palm between three and seven years old produces small fragrant flowers, the female whitish and the male waxy and cream colored, on a hanging filament that divides into anything between 25 and 150 strands. It is the lateral buds of older trees which bear the fruit.

Large filaments may carry anything between 6,000 and 10,000 flowers. Some date palms have strands bearing both male and female flowers; others may have perfect single sex flowers.

As the fruits develop, their combined weight bends the stalk holding the cluster downward. The fruit is oblong and depending on the type, is between 2.5-7.5 cm long, dark-brown, reddish, or yellowish-brown. When ripe it is sweet, but astringent when forming and green.

Iraq has always led the world in date production, but the acute drought that has plagued Iraq for the past five years, as well decades of conflict, have slashed agricultural production in the country. One of the worst affected crops is the date palm, one of the staples of Iraqi agricultural production. Iraq, once produced three-quarters of the world’s dates and grew 629 different varieties. It now falls behind Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Date production in Iraq today comes to around 300,000-350,000 tons a year, about a third of what it was in 2000, according to Faroun Ahmed Hussein, head of the Iraq national date palm board.

In Saudi Arabia, Madinah’s date market (Souq Al-Tamaar) offers about 150 varieties, the most popular of which is Anbara, which is also the most expensive. Other varieties include Ajwah, (exceptionally sought-after when grown in Madinah, due to its affiliation with the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), Halwa, Shalabi, Barnie and Mabroum.

The United Arab Emirates has more than 42 million producing date palms, and it has become the leading country in the world in producing dates, according to leading Iraqi agricultural expert Ali Tawfiq.

According to Abdullah Al-Obaid, Undersecretary for Research and Development at the Ministry of Agriculture, Saudi Arabia has an estimated 12 to 15 million palms under cultivation with some 93 percent (Saudi MOA 2009) of annual production consumed in the Kingdom.

Apart from being a very palatable fruit, the date packs a powerful nutritional punch. Although the exact proportions vary across varieties, the typical composition of a date is: moisture, 23 percent; protein 2.2 percent; energy 274Kcal; carbohydrates 73 percent (sugars); fiber 2.3 percent; ash 1.9 percent; and a significant spread of vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, phosphorous, sodium, calcium, potassium and, unique in fruits, lactin which is normally only found in milk.

The palm, resistant to very sever climatic conditions is not without its successful enemies however. The red palm weevil (Rhynchophorous ferrugineus) kills off the palm by attacking and infesting the crown of the plant. Walking in a grove of blackened and twisted trees that once bore this remarkable fruit — frozen in positions that look as if they died writhing in agony — is a thought provoking experience.

Happily, the date is in no danger of dying out and if the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture has anything to do with it, has a bright future as an export foodstuff to the West and beyond.

 

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