Dates come from the Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, a mid-size palm that frequently has more than one trunk growing from the same rootstock. Because it has been cultivated for its fruit for so long, its precise origin is uncertain, but is probably native to North Africa and possibly Southeast Asia. Date palms have been cultivated for thousands of years in the Middle East and there is evidence of cultivation as early as 6000 BC in Eastern Arabia. They were introduced to Mexico and California in the late 1700s and are grown commercially in the Southern California desert.
The date is technically a drupe and is also considered an epigynous berry, similar to a cranberry or blueberry, in that the fruit forms above the flower. While dates are naturally pollinated by the wind, in both oases and modern cultivation they are hand pollinated.
It takes between four and seven years from planting for dates to fruit. A mature date palm can produce between 176 and 264 pounds of dates per harvest, though they don’t all mature at once, so several harvests are required. Dates ripen in four phases, the last being fresh dry. As they do not contain much water, the fresh and dried dates are about the same size. There are a significant number of date varieties worldwide, but in Europe and the United States only a few varieties, such as Deglet Noor, Mejdool and Empress, are commonly used.
Dates are an important food worldwide. They are eaten out-of-hand, mixed with yogurt, put into stews and other dishes, stuffed with nuts, marzipan and cream cheese, and made into desserts. Dates are also used as a food for camels, horses and dogs in the Sahara. The seeds can be ground into flour and sometimes also used as a coffee replacement. They are also made into sugar and molasses, and in Nigeria, dates are added to native beer to cut some of the intoxicating properties. The young leaves are also eaten as a vegetable. Palm sap is made into palm sugar.
Date palms are used in construction, ropes and crafts, as well as firewood and charcoal. Iraq is the largest exporter of dates worldwide.
Medicinally, dates are used for their cleansing power, as an astringent, and made into an infusion to treat sore throats, colds and bronchitis.