Phoenix dactylifera is a palm with a long and interesting history. Its origin goes back to ancient times, well before written history. It is a member of the genus Phoenix, which contains about one dozen species of palms. Although other species in this genus produce fruits that are eaten by birds and other animals, Phoenix dactylifera is the only Phoenix species cultivated for its fruit. The date palm is the characteristic vegetation found in the oases of arid areas in the Middle East. It was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of fertility, and considered by others as the tree of life. The Greeks and Romans used it as a symbol of triumph, and the Hebrew and Christian cultures as a symbol of peace. Its name, Phoenix, is derived from the Phoenicians who were among the first to describe this plant in their travels. Dactylifera is derived from dactylus for “date” from the Greek dactylos, and fero for “date bearing” or “I bear.”
Observations of this plant were first recorded around 5000-6000 BC in Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. Most likely, these species were wild. The first record of cultivation comes from Lower Mesopotamia around 4000 BC. Later, when the Moors entered Spain, they brought the date with them. Although the Moors were forced out of Spain, the dates stayed and were brought to the Americas by the early Spanish missionaries.
By 1890, the USDA was beginning to look into date production in the United States. However, the test plants proved inferior and it was not until 1900 that newer more desirable dates were imported for trial.
In the United States, the major date growing areas are Southern California and Arizona. However, there are date palms growing throughout California, Arizona, Southern Utah, Nevada, Texas, and most of Florida. Date palms of various species are sometimes found in protected areas in colder states such as the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Even though date palms may survive in these areas without the long hot dry growing conditions of the southwest states, fruit production is nearly impossible.
DISTRIBUTION AND ECOLOGY
The date palm requires high temperatures and low humidity to set fruit and ripen to maturity. The date palm grows best in temperatures above 20°F (-7°C). However, they can survive into the mid to lower teens for short periods of time. For pollen germination, a temperature of 95°F (35°C) is needed. As with most palms, research has shown that warm to hot night temperatures also promotes faster growth. A study by Gary Wood of Suncoast Palms in California revealed that greater growth took place between 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. than from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Areas with warmer night temperature promote faster palm growth than those that cool off at night. The best growing conditions for palms are deep soils, preferably sand 3 to 5 feet deep, and a good supply of either sub-surface or irrigation water. Date palms grow naturally between 15 and 35 degrees north latitude in the Sahara, and in the southern fringe of the Near East. This area is nearly rainless. The date palm is found throughout the Middle East and in the northern, eastern, and southern areas of Africa. They are also found in North America, Southern Europe, and Central and South America. It is estimated that there are more than 105 million date palms covering an area of 800,000 ha. (1,984,000 acres), and that there are over 250,000 bearing trees in California and Arizona (1987). Yet with this great distribution, there are still vast areas of the world where this palm could adapt to the harsh climates and provide much-needed food crops. The date palm is adaptable to large and small production in arid and semi-arid regions.
Southern Nevada’s use of the date palm is mostly ornamental, although edible fruit can be produced here. However, for the rest of the world where the date palm is an important part of agriculture, every part of the tree has a useful purpose. The fruit is not only the most obvious product of this palm, but the main reason that it is grown. The dates are eaten fresh or dried, and are made into paste, sugar, jam, juice, syrup, vinegar, and alcohol. The leaves are used to make rope, baskets, crates, roofing, fuel, and furniture. The very young leaves and heart of the palm are eaten. The sap is tapped and used to make sugar and alcohol. The seeds are used for animal feed. They can also be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, or finely ground to be mixed with flour to make bread. The wood is used for posts and rafters. The fruit, seeds, and sap are used medicinally.
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