National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Dates Provide Food in Barren Deserts SAID MOHAMMED: "There is among the trees one that is preeminently blessed, as is the Moslem among men; it is the palm." Small wonder that desert dwellers of Arabia, Egypt, and westward to Algeria and Morocco call the date palm blessed. The fruit, con taining more than half its weight in sugar and smaller quantities of fat and protein, is one of the most important food sources in a generally barren land. It furnishes shade for men and animals. The leaves are used for making baskets, matting, and bags, the fiber for rope. The roasted stones, or pits, are a substitute for coffee. When the palm becomes old and nonpro ductive, or before, it is tapped to draw off the sap, from which a toddy is made, called in ancient cuneiform inscription "the drink of life." Finally, the trunks are used as fuel. The exact origin of the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is unknown. Certainly it is one of the oldest food plants known to mankind. Long before history begins, it grew in Arabia, Babylonia, and Egypt, as indicated by plant remains as well as by tradition and the oldest writings. Moisture Feeds Roots but Molds Fruits Although the date palm will grow through out great areas of the world, wherever tem peratures do not go lower than 5° to 10° F., the areas where fruit production is success ful are much more limited. Even a small amount of rain and humid weather as the fruit approaches maturity will cause it to mold and sour. Thus fruit production is largely limited to areas having very dry sum mer and fall seasons. Although grown in naturally desert countries, the date palms re quire abundant soil moisture. Thus they thrive only about springs or oases, or where they can be irrigated. Present Old World centers of date grow ing are the same countries that grew them in earliest times, Iran, Iraq, Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. A few are grown in Spain, but in general date culture is meager in countries north of the Mediterranean. Too much rainfall and humidity are the chief limiting factors. No one knows exactly when date palms were first planted in the United States. Span ish missionaries planted seeds around the mis sions in the Southwest before 1800, at the latest. The real beginning of date culture in the United States came in 1890. In that year, the U. S. Department of Agriculture arranged for palms of some of the better varieties from Egypt to be planted in tubs and shipped to this country. Later, plantsmen from the Department visited all important date-grow- ing countries, secured offshoots of the better varieties, and successfully established them. Commercial firms followed with larger im portations of the better kinds. The only way of propagating superior date varieties is by these offshoots, or "suckers," which develop from the base of relatively young palms. The suckers, much like those that form near the base of corn plants, may be cut off when 3 to 5 years old. Care fully handled, especially as to watering, each will grow into a new palm. Since each palm produces only a relatively few offshoots, mainly in its early years, the multiplication of superior dates is a slow process. Only a few areas in this country are adapted to date-fruit culture. Our industry is centered in the interior desert valleys of southern Cali fornia and Arizona, which have intensely hot, dry summers and autumns, much like Arabia and North Africa. The greatest concentration of planting is in the Coachella Valley in California, north west of the Salton Sea. There are now some 5,000 acres of date palms in this country, with production averaging around 20,000,000 pounds a year. Even so, considerable quan tities are still imported from southwest Asia, chiefly Iran. Date varieties are of three kinds, soft, semidry, and dry. The soft dates are richly flavored, but are difficult to ship and handle. They are used extensively in various date confections. The semidry dates are those principally found in the markets of this country. The dry dates, little grown or sold in the United States, are relatively hard-meated, sweet, and nonperishable, and are a very important food in Arab countries. In our southwestern desert date centers, production practices have been studied more scientifically than any other place in the world, and Old World countries now look to us for technical information on date culture. The U. S. Department of Agriculture has maintained a research station for date in vestigations at Indio, California, almost from the start of date culture here. Flying Fans Make Artificial Breezes Such research has turned date growing in the United States into a complex science based on a mixture of tedious hand work and mecha nization. Heavy paper wrappings are some times tied over individual bunches-which may contain 1,000 or more fruit-to guard against insects, birds, or dampness. Pollina tion may be done by tying male flower strands into female flower clusters with rubber bands, or with a pollen duster. On occasion, helicop ters have been hired to fly low over date treetops and fan away moisture.