Date palms were one of the first plants cultivated by men. Its cultivation probably started 5000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region straddling between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East and the Indus Valley for thousands of years. Their leaves were carried as symbols of victory by kings thousands of years ago. The top commercial date producing regions are the Middle East and North Africa. Now it is widely cultivated across South Asia and North America also. The species name comes from the Greek word Daktylos which means “finger” due to the fruit's elongated shape. In our region also a native type is cultivated since time immemorial. Primarily juice is processed here into sweet syrup. These nutritious fruits contain several vitamins and minerals, in addition to fibre and antioxidants. Dates are cholesterol free and an excellent source of quick energy. However, they are high in carbohydrates and calories since they are a dried fruit.
During my stay in Medina as part of Hazz journey, I marked numerous date orchards in the outskirts of the city. Nicely arranged varieties of date trees added beauty to the neighbourhood. In arid regions, date palms can provide shade for growing other crops. Intercropping of dates with fruits, vegetables and pasture is common in traditional areas of date production. I was fortunate to visit two date gardens. I noticed these trees give a tropical flare to any backyard or orchard. I felt entering inside an oasis. Here most workers are from South Asian countries. Talking to them, I came to know issues like cultivation process, fertilizers, pesticides, intercropping, harvesting, processing, marketing and costing. The date palm tree is called “nakhl” and the fruit is called “tamr” in Arabic. It is considered as a symbol of life in the desert, as it tolerates high temperatures, water stress and salinity more than many other fruit crops. The optimum planting density is considered to be 50 trees per acre. I thought I should share my experience with readers who can also learn many things.
Though date trees require much water yet rain or humidity can damage crop. That is why desert climate with average rainfall less than 3 inches per year is suitable. The ground around the date trees has to be kept clear of grass and weeds to avoid humidity. Each tree requires approximately 60,000 gallons of water per year. Special “borders” are built up around the roots to irrigate and contain the water. These trees can be around 75 feet in height. Its strong stem is marked with the pruned stubs of old leaf bases. The thorns at crown are removed to make it possible to work in the date trees. The male trees produce pollen, and the female trees produce flowers. Dates are naturally wind pollinated and birds or bees are not attracted to the flowers. So, in both traditional oasis horticulture and in the modern commercial orchards female trees are entirely pollinated manually.
March to May is the prime time for pollination of the date palms. As soon as a sheath on a male tree begins to open, it is tied with string to hold it together and removed from the tree. Then it is hanged upside down to dry. After drying, it forms very fine powder and stored in a large air-tight container. The female trees have the same kind of sheath. After the spathe crack naturally, the sheath is removed to separate each strand. Then hand-pollination is done by applying dried pollen collected from the male trees. Each female tree is pollinated up to three times during the process. One male tree can pollinate 40 or even 50 females. It allows thinning out the male tree population and focusing on nurturing the females. Destructive diseases like fungus, black scorch, Graphiola leaf spot and inflorescence rot may develop, which need application of pesticides. Four stages of development from pollination till harvesting are distinct, which are locally known as Chimri, Khalal, Rutab and Tamar stage.
Around April or May when bud of palm grows on the strands thinning process starts. It allows better air flow and the chance for each individual date to grow to its optimum size. When the dates become larger, they are covered with a cloth bag to protect from birds and insects. It also catches any fallen ripe dates prior to harvest. Sometimes, the date bunches are positioned below to support this bag. Rain and high humidity in the period preceding ripening may create cracks on the fruit surface through which fungi and bacteria may enter.
Though many date farms use forklift for harvesting, I saw manual method. Here a man places himself over a branch with a bucket. Few long ropes are attached with those branches. After the bucket is filled, it is lowered to ground with the support of the rope. Date fruits, when ripe, range from bright yellow to bright red in colour, depending on variety. With good growing conditions and under best farming practices, each tree can produce a yield of about 100 to 125 kg of fruits. Though the date trees take time to produce fruits in the early years, it bears fruits for the next 50 to 70 years.
Dates are then put into a larger tray and taken to the processing area for sorting. Sometimes on request yellow dates are sold. If some are found still not ripe, those are left out in the heat to finish ripening. Afterwards, they are cleaned by wet towels. The dates then rolled onto a conveyor belt where they are sorted by size and quality. From there, the dates are packed and moved into cold storage until they are sold. Dates freeze exceptionally well and can be frozen in airtight containers for a year.
Date palms produce many products that are useful to humans. The fruit can be eaten fresh, dried, or in various processed forms. Dates can be used in making cereal, pudding, bread, pressed cakes, cookies, candy bars, ice cream, juice, vinegar, wine, beer, sugar, syrup, honey, chutney, pickle, paste, and food flavouring. Oil extracted from its seed is used as raw material in soap and cosmetics production. Bags, baskets, camel saddles, cords, crates, fans, food covers, furniture, mats, paper, ropes, trays, and twine can be made from fibre of trunk and leaves. Traditionally, date seeds are mainly used as animal feed. Date fruit also have many medicinal uses.
Dates also have religious significance. Date palm leaves were used to hail Jesus during His entry into Jerusalem. Today Christian's have Palm Sunday. Muslims break their Ramadan fast each night by eating a date as it replenishes lost energy and eases constipation. When the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) built his mosque in Madinah, the pillars were constructed from the trunks of palm trees and the roof was woven from palm fronds. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “If somebody takes seven ‘ajwa dates in the morning, neither magic nor poison will hurt him that day.” (Sahih Bukhari). Again, the Messenger (PBUH) said, “Ajwa dates are from paradise.”(Tirmidhi). Dates are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur'an.
Finally I visited the adjacent showroom. I found dry or soft dates pitted and stuffed with fillings such as almonds, walnuts, peel, cream cheese, pecans or candied orange. I tasted various dates and sweet items. Really they were amazing. I bought dates of few verities.
In future, the genetic improvement using Genome Editing technologies will address challenges and ensure sustainable quality production. Worldwide, date production has increased exponentially over the last three decades. At present, Middle Eastern date palms are planted in minor scale in Bangladesh also. Many private companies are importing tissue culture saplings from different countries. Few cases got success as well. Improved training, research, management, efficient handling by the stakeholders can ensure desired quality.
The writer is a civil engineer and a serving military officer