Grown in the Holy Land for thousands of years and likely the first cultivated tree in history, the date palm is referenced often in the Bible as well as in ancient poetry of the East. Muslim legend relates that the tree was made in Iran from the same dust as Adam. From Iran, the revered tree was carried to China about 1,700 years ago. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that Spaniards took date seeds to California.
The date palm looks much in appearance like the coconut palm. It can grow as high as 100 feet with clusters that might contain up to 200 dates and weigh as much as 25 pounds, producing annual yields of about 200 pounds per tree. The tree begins bearing fruit at four to five years of age and, under ideal conditions, continues to do so for about 75 years.
Since the date tree prefers a hot, dry climate and a sandy, alkaline soil, most of today’s date crop is grown in the Middle East. America’s supply grows in the “date gardens” of California, Arizona, and Texas. Dates are harvested in late fall and early winter and, as they store well, are available year round.
The three types of dates categorized include the soft dates, semisoft dates, and dried dates. The soft and semisoft dates are harvested while unripe. Dried dates are allowed to sun-ripen while still on the tree.
The most common variety is a semisoft date referred to as Deglet Noor aka “the queen of all dates.” Other semisoft dates in American production are Medjool and Zahidi. America’s most common soft variety is Barhi. When stored in the refrigerator, soft and semisoft varieties will keep for about eight months. At room temperature, they will remain fresh for one month
Dried dates should be wrinkled and not too hard. They.are pasteurized to inhibit mold growth and can be kept in the refrigerator for up to one year or in the freezer for up to five years.
Health and nutritional benefits
Dates contain easily digested carbohydrates with a sugar content of about 60 to 70 percent. Most varieties contain glucose or fructose but the Deglet Noor contains sucrose. One pitted date contains 23 calories. A serving is 3 1/2 ounces to equal four Medjool dates or twelve Deglet Noor dates.
Dates provide fiber, niacin, B6, riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, and pantothenic acid, and minerals copper, potassium, manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, and phosphorus.
They are among the most alkaline of foods and are rich in antioxidant and anti-cancer compounds. Date extract was found to prevent and protect against free radical damage–the higher the concentration, the greater the protection against free radicals.
National Date Festival
To experience the most wonderfully soft and sensuous dates in the Western Hemisphere as well as to enjoy an atmosphere in mysteries of the East, visit the Riverside County Fair’s National Date Festival in California. For information, click here.