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Data on Dates

May 3, 2013

Saudi DatesDate – Phoenix dactylifera
By J. Morton (1987)
[Edited by Emma Bay.]

Most of the dozen or more species of the genus Phoenix (family Palmae) are grown as ornamental palms indoors or out. Only the common date, P. dactylifera L., is cultivated for its fruit. Often called the edible date, it has few alternate names except in regional dialects. To the French, it is dattier; in German, it is dattel; in Italian, datteri; or dattero; in Spanish, datil; and, in Dutch, dadel. The Portuguese word is tamara.

Food Uses

Dry or soft dates are eaten out-of-hand, or may be seeded and stuffed, or chopped and used in a great variety of ways: on cereal, in pudding, bread, cakes, cookies, ice cream, or candy bars. The pitting may be done in factories either by crushing and sieving the fruits or, with more sophistication, by piercing the seed out, leaving the fruit whole. Surplus dates are made into cubes, paste, spread, powder (date sugar), jam, jelly, juice, sirup, vinegar or alcohol. Decolored and filtered date juice yields a clear invert sugar solution.

Cull fruits are dehydrated, ground and mixed with grain to form a very nutritious stockfeed. Young leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart, though its removal kills the palm. In India, date seeds are roasted, ground, and used to adulterate coffee. The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to make bread in times of scarcity.

In North Africa, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, date palms are tapped for the sweet sap which is converted into palm sugar, molasses or alcoholic beverages, but each palm should not be tapped more than 2 or 3 times. Tapping the edible date palm interferes with fruit production and it is wiser to tap [another] palm species exploited for sugar.

When the terminal bud is cut out for eating, the cavity fills with a thick, sweet fluid (called lagbi in India) that is drunk for refreshment but is slightly purgative. It ferments in a few hours and is highly intoxicating. Fresh spathes, by distillation, yield an aromatic fluid enjoyed by the Arabian people.

Medicinal Uses

The fruit, because of its tannin content, is used medicinally as a detersive and astringent in intestinal troubles. In the form of an infusion, decoction, sirup or paste, is administered as a treatment for sore throat, colds, bronchial catarrh. It is taken to relieve fever, cystisis, gonorrhea, edema, liver and abdominal troubles. And it is said to counteract alcohol intoxication. The seed powder is an ingredient in a paste given to relieve ague.

A gum that exudes from the wounded trunk is employed in India for treating diarrhea and genito-urinary ailments. It is diuretic and demulcent. The roots are used against toothache. The pollen yields an estrogenic principle, estrone, and has a gonadotropic effect on young rats.

Other Uses

Seeds: Date seeds have been soaked in water until soft and then fed to horses, cattle, camels, sheep and goats. Dried and ground up, they are now included in chicken feed. The seeds contain 6 to 8% of a yellow-green, non-drying oil suitable for use in soap and cosmetic products. Date seeds may also be processed chemically as a source of oxalic acid. In addition, the seeds are burned to make charcoal for silversmiths, and they are often strung in necklaces.

Leaves: In Italy, there are some groves of date palms maintained solely to supply the young leaves for religious use on Palm Sunday. In North Africa, the leaves have been commonly used for making huts. Mature leaves are made into mats, screens, baskets, crates and fans. The leaf petioles have been found to be a good source of cellulose pulp. Dried, they are used as walking sticks, brooms, fishing floats, and fuel. The midribs are made into baskets. The leaf sheaths have been prized for their scent. Fiber from the old leaf sheaths is used for various purposes including packsaddles, rope, coarse cloth and large hats.

Fruit clusters: The stripped fruit clusters are used as brooms.

Wood: Posts and rafters for huts are fashioned of the wood from the trunk of the date palm, though this wood is lighter than that of the coconut. It is soft in the center and not very durable. That of male trees and old, un productive females is readily available and used for aqueducts, bridges and various kinds of construction, also parts of dhows. All left over parts of the trunk are burned for fuel.

Origin and Distribution

The date palm is believed to have originated in the lands around the Persian Gulf and in ancient times was especially abundant between the Nile and Euphrates rivers. It was much revered and regarded as a symbol of fertility, and depicted in bas relief and on coins. Nomads planted the date at oases in the deserts and Arabs introduced it into Spain. It has long been grown on the French Riviera, in southern Italy, Sicily and Greece, though the fruit does not reach perfection in these areas.

The date has been traditionally a staple food in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, the Sudan, Arabia and Iran. Iraq has always led the world in date production. The Basra area is renowned for its cultivars of outstanding quality. In 1980, production in Saudi Arabia [sky-rocketed] because of government subsidies, improved technology, and a royal decree that dates be included in meals in government and civic institutions and that hygienically-packed dates be regularly available in the markets. In West Africa, near the Sahara, only dry, sugary types can be grown.

 The fruits ripen well in northwestern India and at the Fruit Research Center in Saharanpur. In southern India, the climate is unfavorable for date production. A few trees around Bohol in the Philippines are said to bear an abundance of fruits of good quality. The date palm has been introduced into Australia, and into northeastern Argentina and Brazil where it may prosper in dry zones. Some dates are supplying fruits for the market on the small island of Margarita off the coast from northern Venezuela. Seed-propagated dates are found in many tropical and sub-tropical regions where they are valued as ornamentals but where the climate is unsuitable for fruit production.

In November 1899, 75 plants were sent from Algiers to Jamaica. They were kept in a nursery until February 1901 and then 69 were planted at Hope Gardens. The female palms ultimately bore large bunches of fruits but they were ready to mature in October during the rainy season and, accordingly, the fruits rotted and fell. Only occasionally have date palms borne normal fruits in the Bahamas and South Florida.

Spanish explorers introduced the date into Mexico, around Sonora and Sinaloa, and Baja California. The palms were only seedlings. Still, the fruits had great appeal and were being exported from Baja California in 1837. The first date palms in California were seedlings planted by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries in 1769. Potted offshoots from Egypt reached California in 1890 and numerous other introductions have been made into that state and into the drier parts of southern Arizona around Tempe and Phoenix. In 1912, Paul and Wilson Popenoe purchased a total of 16,000 offshoots of selected cultivars in Algeria, eastern Arabia and Iraq and transported them to California for distribution by their father, F.O. Popenoe who was a leader in encouraging date culture in California. It became a profitable crop, especially in the Coachella Valley. There are now about a quarter of a million bearing trees in California and Arizona.


It would be impractical to deal in depth with date cultivars here. Paul Popenoe listed 1,500 and provided descriptions of the fruit and palm, as well as the history and significance, of the most important, country by country, in 90 pages of his book, The Date Palm, written in 1924 but published in 1973 and readily available. In Iraq, there are presently 450 female cultivars, the most important of which are: ‘Zahdi’ (43% of the crop; low in price); ‘Sayer’ 23% of the crop and high-priced); ‘Halawi’ (13% of the crop and high-priced); ‘Khadrawi (6% of the crop and high-priced); also ‘Khastawi, ‘Brem’, and ‘Chipchap’. Sawaya and colleagues (1983) have reported on the sugars, tannins and vitamins in 55 major date cultivars of Saudi Arabia.

The following, with brief comments, are the dates most commonly grown:

‘Barhi’— introduced into California in 1913 from Basra, Iraq; nearly cylindrical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavor; of superb quality. For shipment needs refrigeration as soon as picked, then curing and special packing.

‘Dayri’ (the “Monastery Date”)—introduced into California from convent grounds in Dayri, Iraq, in 1913; long, slender, nearly black, soft. Palm requires special care. Not grown extensively in California.

‘Deglet Noor’—a leading date in Algeria and Tunisia; and in the latter country it is grown in inland oases and is the chief export cultivar. It was introduced into California in 1900 and now constitutes 75% of the California crop. It is semi-dry, not very sweet; keeps well; is hydrated before shipping. Much used for cooking. The palm is high yielding but not very tolerant of rain and atmospheric humidity.

‘Halawy’ (‘Halawi’)—introduced into California from Iraq; soft, extremely sweet, small to medium; may shrivel during ripening unless the palm is well-watered. It is especially tolerant of humidity.

‘Hayany’ (‘Hayani’)—the cultivar most extensively planted in Egypt; but not exported. Introduced into California in 1901, and is sold fresh; is not easy to cure. The fruit is dark-red to nearly black; soft. The palm is one of the most cold-tolerant.

‘Khadrawy’ (‘Khadrawi’)—important in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and is grown to some extent in California and Arizona. It is the cultivar most favored by Arabs but too dark in color to be popular on the American market, though it is a soft date of the highest quality. It is early-ripening; does not keep too well. This cultivar is the smallest edible date palm grown in the United States and it is fairly tolerant of rain and humidity.

‘Khastawi’ (‘Khustawi’; ‘Kustawy’)—the leading soft date in Iraq; sirupy, small in size; prized for dessert; keeps well. The palm is large and vigorous and produces its offshoots high on the trunk in California. The fruit is resistant to humidity.

‘Maktoom’—introduced into California from Iraq in 1902; large, red-brown; thick-skinned, soft, mealy, medium sweet; resistant to humidity.

‘Medjool’—formerly exported from Morocco; 11 off-shoots imported into California from Bou Denib oases in French Morocco in 1927; is now marketed as a deluxe date in California; is large, soft, and luscious but ships well.

‘Saidy’ (‘Saidi’)—highly prized in Libya; soft, very sweet; palm is a heavy bearer; needs a very hot climate.

‘Sayer’ (‘Sayir’)—the most widely grown cultivar in the Old World and much exported to Europe and the Orient; dark orange-brown, of medium size, soft, sirupy, and sometimes some of the sirup is drained out and sold separately; not of high quality but the palm is one of the most tolerant of salt and other adverse factors.

‘Thoory’(‘Thuri’)—popular in Algeria; does well in California. Fruit is dry; when cured is brown-red with bluish bloom with very wrinkled skin and the flesh is sometimes hard and brittle but the flavor is good, sweet and nutty. Keeps well; often carried on journeys. The palm is stout with short, stiff leaves; bears heavily, and clusters are very large; somewhat tolerant of humidity.

‘Zahdi’(‘Zahidi’)—the oldest-known cultivar, consumed in great quantity in the Middle East; introduced into California about 1900. Of medium size, cylindrical, light golden-brown; semi-dry but harvested and sold in 3 stages: soft, medium-hard, and hard: very sugary; keeps well for months; much used for culinary purposes. The palm is stout, fast growing, heavy bearing; drought resistant; has little tolerance of high humidity.

In all date-growing areas, some confusion is caused if a seed from harvested fruits falls at the base of a select cultivar and the seedling springs up unnoticed among the offshoots. Such seedlings should be watched for and discarded lest they be mistakenly transplanted with the offshoots and later bear fruits of inferior quality.


The date palm must have full sun. It cannot live in the shade. It will grow in all warm climates where the temper ature rarely falls to 20°F (-6.67°C). When the palm is dormant, it can stand temperatures that low, but when in flower or fruit the mean temperature must be above 64°F (17.78°C). Commercial fruit production is possible only where there is a long, hot growing season with daily maximum temperatures of 90°F (32.22°C) and virtually no rain—less than 1/2 in (1.25 cm) in the ripening season. The date can tolerate long periods of drought though, for heavy bearing, it has a high water requirement. This is best supplied by periodic flooding from the rivers in North Africa and by subsurface water rather than by rain.

Source: (original source: Morton, J. 1987. Date. p. 5–11. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.)


From → Digestion, Food, Health

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