The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is cultivated for its edible sweet fruit which is super sweet and delicious. I know from personal experience (in the California desert at least) that date palms are also a wonderful source of shade and cool.
Dates are believed to be native to the Middle East near the Persian Gulf and have been cultivated for perhaps as long as 8,000 years. There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in eastern Arabia in 6000 BCE.
Traders spread dates and their cultivation to South and South West Asia, northern Africa, Spain and Italy. Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by the Spaniards by 1765. Today, dates are an important traditional crop in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and north Africa west to Morocco and are also cultivated in southern California, Arizona and southern Florida in the United States.
The fruit of the date palm is known as a date. The fruit’s English name, as well as the Latin species name dactylifera, derives from the Greek word dáktulos (finger), because of the fruit’s shape. Dates are oval-cylindrical, 1 ½ – 3 inches long, and 1 ½ inches in diameter and contain a single seed.
Although there are hundreds of types of dates there are three main types: soft, semi-dry, and dry. The designation is dependent on the glucose, fructose and sucrose content.
The following cultivars are most well known:
Deglet Noor appears light or golden when held up to the sun. It is semi-dry and not very sweet.
Empress was developed by the DaVall Family in California from a seedling of Thoory. It is large, and is softer and sweeter than its parent and has a light tan top half and brown bottom half.
Khadrawy is a soft, very dark date.
Medjool or (Mejhool) is a large, sweet and succulent date.
Thoory (Thuri) is a dry date, brown-red when cured with a wrinkled skin. Its flesh is sometimes hard and brittle but the flavor is sweet and nutty.
Zahidi are medium size, cylindrical, light golden-brown semi-dry dates that are very sugary, and sold as soft, medium-hard and hard.
Dates have the lowest moisture of any fruit grown the arid desert. While most fruits range from 75 to 95 percent moisture, fresh whole dates are less than 30 percent moisture; making them Nature’s only naturally dry fruit.
Dates are rich in dietary fiber and have many minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium and potassium. Dates are also rich in polyphenols, an antioxidant, vitamins A, B complex, C, E and amino acids.
- Dry or soft dates are eaten out-of-hand, or may be pitted and stuffed with fillings such as almonds, walnuts, candied orange and lemon peel, tahini, marzipan or cream cheese.
- Dates can also be chopped and used in a range of sweet and savory dishes, from tagines in Morocco to puddings, cookies and quick breads.
- Young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart, though its removal kills the palm.
- The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to make bread in times of scarcity.
- The flowers of the date palm are also edible. The flower buds are used in salad or ground with dried fish to make a condiment for bread.
- When Muslims break their fast for the evening meal of Ramadan, it is traditional to eat a date first.
For optimum preservation, dates should be stored in a tightly-sealed container; refrigerated, frozen or stored in a dark, cool pantry for up to one year. Chopped dates can be stored in cool, dry storage or several months.
Refresh dates after a long storage by immersing them in water (80 degrees F.) for about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from water, pat dry with a paper towel and serve.
Here are a few recipes courtesy of the California Date Commission. Date Ravioli in Walnut Sauce is vegetarian and can easily be vegan by eliminating the Parmesan cheese.