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Dateless Dates

By Audrey Stallsmith

phoenix dactylifera

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree. . .
Psalms 92:12a

Not able to find chopped dates at the beginning of November, I purchased some whole Medjools instead.  And, in the process of chopping them for a sweet bread recipe, was delighted to discover that they still contained pits.  

Online opinion seemed to be mixed as to whether pits from supermarket dates would actually sprout.  Some people held that, because the fruits are often hydrated with stream, those seeds wouldn't be viable.

But--since palms can make good houseplants--I decided to give them a try, and see if at least one would squeak through.  I soaked about a dozen of the pits in water overnight, then popped them into a sandwich bag with a couple handfuls of damp Pro-Mix. 

About three weeks later, I saw what I thought were roots emerging from a single seed.  On opening the bag, however, I discovered that ten of the seeds had produced one root each!  What some would call an embarrassment of riches. 

Like the expectant mother who suddenly finds out that she's been blessed with multiple babies instead of one, I felt more taken aback than blessed. Then it occurred to me that I probably shouldn't count my date palms before they actually produce shoots as well!

Either my Medjools hadn't been steamed, or they simply hadn't minded.  After all,  Middle-Easterners used to say that the date palm "likes to have its head in fire and its feet in water."

Too much humidity will prevent it from setting fruit, however. Which is probably why palms are generally pictured growing around a desert oasis.  (Wet feet, but dry heads!)  The top date-producing countries are Egypt, Iran, and Arabia. (The date palm even appears--above crossed swords--in Arabia's national symbol.) 

But, if I recall correctly, my Medjools came from California.  They may have been descendants of some offshoots brought to that state in 1927 by Dr. Walter Swingle.  Worried about a disease that was devastating the date palms in Morocco, he decided to "rescue" a few.  Thus launching a whole new agricultural industry in the arid Coachella Valley.             

According to tradition, a date palm will be tall enough to produce fruit once a fully loaded donkey can pass under its branches.  In other words, at about five years of age!  Since the trees are supposed to grow twelve fronds per year, a single frond symbolized a month in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Female date palms require a male to produce fruit.  And the males, of course, don't produce anything but pollen.  It generally takes about two hundred days from pollination to harvest.  We Americans generally only see dates at their final (dried) stage, but Middle-Easterners will often enjoy them when they are still crunchy and astringent.

The date palm's official title is phoenix dactylifera, phoenix being the legendary bird that rose from the ashes.  An apt symbol for trees that can survive in a "burning" climate. Dactylifera derives from the Greek "finger" and "I bear," oblong dates being vaguely finger-shaped.

The date palm is apparently as old as man, and so important to Middle-Eastern culture that some stories hold that it sprang--like Eve--from Adam.  Only from bits of his hair and nails, however.  Not from a rib! 

Before the advent of modern canning and freezing methods, foods that could be preserved by drying were of extreme importance.  Not to mention that the date palm has a host of other uses.  The heart and leaves can be cooked as a vegetable or woven into huts, mats, baskets, etc.  And palms can be tapped like we tap maples, though the resultant sap ferments very rapidly.   

Sparkling date juice, on the other hand, is sometimes used as a nonalcoholic "champagne" in Islamic countries.  (That reminds me of when somebody brought sparkling grape juice to an art opening on our "dry" campus--way back in my college student days.  And got all of us into big trouble, perception apparently being as important as reality, where alumni are concerned!)  Moslems also often break their Ramadan fasts with dates and yogurt or milk.

It's a shame that we Americans mostly only eat dates around the Christmas holiday.  They are quite nutritious, after all, being high in potassium, iron, and some B vitamins.  They can be eaten out of the box like candy.  (Very like candy, as they are about 80% fruit sugars.)  Or they can be pitted and stuffed, or chopped for fruit breads, cookies, and etc.  Date pinwheels are one of my family's Christmas favorites. 

The fruit is also a natural laxative, as well as soothing digestion, sore throats, and etc.  It may even help prevent stomach cancer.

In Little Women Jo asked Mr. Bhaer "why he didn't buy a frail of dates, a cask of raisins, and a bag of almonds, and be done with it?"  She was being ironic, since a frail was a reed basket used for packing dried fruit, which contained about 75 pounds.

But it's not such a bad idea to stock up on seasonal delicacies when they are readily available--for use when they are not. Especially so since I figure the chances of my seedlings ever producing dates in my Zone 5 climate are virtually nil! 

Phoenix dactylifera image is by J. C. Philips (1731).