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Superfood from a tree

Or is it a herb?

Last week, we finished gathering in our Zaghloul dates. We started at the end of August, and the total crop came to 19 kilos, not bad for a first harvest from a young tree (I’ve no idea how young: reading a palm is tricky for the novice..!)

Most of the dates were still firm and red, but some were turning soft and brown-black at the end. There was a little damage from birds, and a lot of dust.

We had watched the dates develop over a period of several months from the time they were fertilised in the spring. This was done by clambering up a step ladder positioned by the trunk with a few male strands full of pollen in hand, and brushing them against the female flowers, then leaving the strands leaning against them, lodged in position by the ribs of the leaves.

The procedure is carried out in farms and gardens all over the country once the flowers appear in March/April, with local agricultural suppliers selling the strands of pollen.

I made sure the tree was fed with manure in spring, and we kept it well watered through the summer. We gave it no further attention: the strands of dates were not too numerous and there were only three bunches, so thinning didn’t seem necessary. What we may do next year is shin up the ladder at some point and re-position the bunches so they are easier to access at harvest time. The tree might look more decorative too!

Zaghloul dates are widely grown in Egypt, and incredibly popular. Children often love them. I’m not entirely sure why… True, if you are lucky you bite into crisp and crunchy flesh, full of sweetness and juice. If unlucky, your mouth turns incredibly dry, you can’t swallow the fibres, and you end up with hiccoughs. That’s been my experience, at least.

Of course, you can wait until the skin turns deep brown and the flesh softens and becomes quite golden. In my view, that’s the point where the dates become truly delicious – but you have to keep the rest of the family from eating them all first…

Almost everywhere you look, date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) are part of the landscape in Egypt.

In fact, they look much better as part of an oasis in the desert, or forming great groves in the countryside than as a lone tree in a garden. Palms are oddly social trees – they need companions, I think.

Of the order Arecales – monocots, along with grasses among other strange relatives that are mostly “herby” according to Colin Tudge* – palm trees are hugely diverse. To start with, there are well over 2,500 species. The adventitious roots grow straight from the trunk – no complex network of branching roots in their case – and they may be incredibly thick. And if we had some trouble climbing up beside our small tree, then it is sobering to think some palms reach 60 metres in height; residents of the Andes, however, not Egypt.

When we lived in the Arabian Gulf, dates ranked alongside fragrant, lightly roasted and cardamom-laced coffee as essentials of life. The trend was for ever more rarefied, and expensive, selections as the population became wealthier.

Historically, though, the date was a staple of the bedouin diet. Date palms, found across the Arabian peninsula, provided a true superfood, packed with nutrients and full of energy-giving sugars well before processed foods and sugar-filled drinks began their relentless invasion of the Middle East.

The list of health benefits goes on for miles. Dates are: cholesterol- and fat-free; fibre-rich; packed with amino acids (dates for body-builders?); bursting with vitamins A, C and an assortment of Bs; blessed with trace elements that may elevate the mood: zinc, for example; with fluorine to protect the teeth; and with sugars (yes, we were bound to get to them, eventually) that are happily slow-releasing, so not too damaging… What more could one want, other than a tiny cup of campfire coffee offered by an hospitable host under a starry desert sky?


*The Secret Life of Trees – Colin Tudge, published by Penguin Books

Dates have been grown in Egypt since pre-historic times: evidence of their cultivation abounds in the art and artefacts that have survived in ancient Egyptian tombs -more on the history of dates in Egypt in a future post.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I like the idea of growing your own dates. I like them plain, stuffed or in rice dishes. Are they naturally wind pollinated? Amelia

    September 18, 2016
    • Hello Amelia: Date palm flowers may be pollinated by wind or by insects – but that presupposes there is a male tree in the vicinity of the females. I often see lone palms in gardens, or even stands of palms in public parks, where there are bunches of apparent fruits (or “drupes” to give them their correct name) which don’t develop because they haven’t been fertilised. I presume that means there is no male tree in the area. In order to get the best results, it is necessary to hand-pollinate – and maybe also to thin the bunches once the young dates begin to develop. Sylvia

      September 20, 2016

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