The Date Palm        The Date Palm, or Phoenix dactylifera, is a plant that has been treasured throughout the world for thousands of years. Dates are in the Aceraceae family, a family with around 181 genera, and 2600 species. This includes the Coconut (cocos nucifera), the Betel nut (areca catechu) and the West African Oil Palm (elaeis guineensis). They were classified by the famous botanist Linnaeus.      It is believed that dates originated from Iraq, but spread quickly across the middle east, to what is now Pakistan and the Indus Valley. They have been cultivated since ancient times, about 7,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia and prehistoric Egypt. Dates grow best in deep, sandy soils can hold in a lot of moisture, and that contain very low levels of calcium carbonate. In other terms, desertic climate. Nowadays, the main producers of dates are Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan.     The Date Palm can reach 100 ft and produces on average over 1000 dates every year, and has a lifespan of 150 years. The Date Palm is a monocot, and can develop as either male or female. Males produce pollen from massive flowers, who then pollinate the fruit buds on the female tree. The Date Palm is wind pollinated, as birds and bees are attracted to the flowers. While wind pollination has been enough to sustain the species, the date supply does not meet human demand, so cultivators have opted for manual pollination, in order to maximize the dats production. While this is extremely labor intensive, this has proven to be a good strategy, as a single male tree can pollinate up to 50 females, which allows agricultures to only focus in developing females.     The date fruit grows in hanging bunches of about 200 dates, that can weigh up to 40 pounds. In general, dates themselves are about 1 ½ inches long, and ¾ wide. When they first develop, they appear to be green, but as they mature, their flesh turns into a shade of golden brown. Inside each fruit is a stone (corneus albumin) that grows in the center.     There are hundreds of date species around the world, but only a few are commercialized. In the United States, the most common varieties are the Deglet Noor, the Zahidi, the Halawy, and the Medjool. In fact, the Deglet Noor is highly prized and represents 85% of the date production in the US.Dates also vary in shape, texture, flavor and sugar content. The three main types of dates are the soft, semi-dry, and dry. Its high sugar content makes it a very nourishing fruit. While fresh dates are edible, dried dates are a more concentrated source of nutrients, particularly iron, potassium, magnesium, copper, and niacin. They are often treated with sulfites, and are sometimes coated in syrup to keep them soft, as they often travel great distances before being consumed. This also increases the sugar content. There are other ways to make use of date palm. The buds and the sap of the palm can be consumed, the date fibers are used to make fabric, and stones/pits are a good source of fuel, and can be used in oil meal to feed camels.     Aside from its practical use, the date holds a lot of meaning throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The name “date” comes from the Greek word “daktulos” meaning “finger”, due to its shape and size. The date palm is also referred to as the “Tree of Life” in the Bible, and the date Deglet Noor translates to “Date of the Light” in Arabic.          Religiously, dates have always held a great significance, and are a key element of Ramadan. While Muslims fast from dawn to sunset over a month long period, it is tradition that a date be the first food that is eaten after the sun goes down. They are also an important part of the feast Eid al-Fitr, that closes Ramadan. It is the center of the royal emblem of Saudi Arabia, along with two crossed swords. The palm also represents Islam throughout the Middle East, and nowadays, throughout the world. Not only is the date significant for traditional and religious reasons, but it is also a key asset to the Islamic nations’ economy.     Dates were not too popular in America until the early 20th century, when a deep and profound fascination for the Orient swept over the United States. This was when the U.S. discovered One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and the film “The Sheik”, by Rudolph Valentino. Businesses saw this as a great opportunity to commercialize dates in the United States. Observing the fascination toward their culture, Middle Eastern countries started advertising their dates internationally, and appealed to the American public. Part of the effort was the annual date festival, a week for tourists from all around the world to come and discover Middle Eastern culture, and popularize the fruit.     While the “date craze” died off after the Second World War, they are now produced in the United States, and are still a crucial part of Middle Eastern culture, and will remain a staple food for the next hundreds of years to come!