In very early times the palm had become naturalized in northern India, northern Africa, and southern Spain. From Spain it was brought to America a few centuries ago.
In the last quarter of a century, United States governmental and private investigators have visited most of the date-growing regions of the Old World in search of varieties for introduction into this country, where, in California and Arizona, may now be found assembled all the finest ones that cultivation, ancient and modern, has yet produced.
Orthodox Muslims consider that the dates of al-Madinah, in Arabia, are the best in the world, partly for the reason that this was the home of the prophet Muhammad, who was himself a connoisseur of the fruit. Unbiased judgment, however, commonly yields the palm to the district of Hasa, in eastern Arabia, where the delicious variety Khalaseh grows, watered by hot springs. The district of greatest commercial importance is that centering at Basrah, on the conjoined Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a region which contains not less than 8,000,000 palms and supplies most of the American market.
1 Malesia, iii.
The region around Baghdad, while less important commercially, contains a larger number of good varieties than any other locality known. Date cultivation by Arabs is most scientifically carried on in the Samail Valley of Oman (eastern Arabia), where alone the Fardh dates of commerce are produced.
Serious attempts to put the date industry of northwestern India on a sound basis are being made, and with good prospects of success. Western Persia and Baluchistan produce some poor dates and incidentally a few good ones.
In Egypt there are nearly 10,000,000 palms, of which seven-tenths are widely scattered over Upper Egypt. Most of them are seedlings and practically all are of the "dry" varieties. On the whole, the Egyptian sorts are inferior.
The Saharan oases of Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria contain many varieties, of which one (Deglet Nur) is as good as any in the world, and is largely exported not only to Europe but to the United States, where it is marketed under the name of "Dattes Muscades du Sahara." Morocco grows good dates in the Tafila-let oases only, whence the huge fruits of one variety (Majhul) are shipped to Spain, England, and other countries. The date palms of southern Spain are seedlings and bear inferior fruit. Elsewhere about the Mediterranean the palm is grown mainly as an ornamental plant.
Intelligent culture of the date palm is now being attempted in some of the dry parts of Brazil, where it promises to attain commercial importance. It is doubtful whether the date will succeed commercially in any moist tropical region, although in isolated instances successful ripening of fruit has been reported in southern India, Dominica (British West Indies), Zanzibar, and southern Florida.
A large area in northern Mexico, not yet developed, is undoubtedly adapted to this culture; but experimental attempts with it on the Rio Grande in Texas have been abandoned. Arizona and California offer the best fields for date-growing in the United States, and in the Coachella Valley of California (a part of the Colorado River basin) conditions are particularly favorable. Residents of this valley are not exceeding the truth in asserting it to be the center of scientific date-growing at the present time.
Dates consist mainly of sugar, cellulose, and water. An average sample of fruits on the American market will show in percentages: 1 carbohydrates 70.6 per cent, protein 1.9 per cent, fat 2.5 per cent, water 13.8 per cent, ash (mineral salts) 1.2 per cent, and refuse (fiber) 10.0 per cent. Cane-sugar is found in dates; in a few varieties this is partly or wholly inverted by the time the fruit is fully ripe.
A diet of dates is obviously rich in carbohydrates but lacking in fats and proteins. It is, therefore, by no accident that the Arabs have come to eat them habitually with some form of milk. This combination makes an almost ideal diet, and some tribes of Arabs subsist on nothing but dates and milk for months at a time.
By Arabs, as well as by Europeans, the date is commonly eaten uncooked. Unsalted butter, clotted cream, or sour milk is thought to "bring out the flavor" and render the sugar less cloying. The commonest way of cooking dates is by frying them, chopped, in butter.
For native consumption around the Persian Gulf and in India, immature dates are boiled and then fried in oil. Jellies and jams are made from dates, and the fruit is also preserved whole. Again, they may be pounded into a paste with locusts (grasshoppers) and various other foodstuffs. The soft kinds are tightly packed into skins or tins, when they are easily transported and will keep indefinitely.
1 U. S. Dept. Agr., Bull. 28.
Various beverages are made by pouring milk or water over macerated dates and letting slight fermentation take place. The sap of the plant provides a mild drink resembling coconut milk, which when fermented becomes intoxicating. From cull dates a strongly alcoholic liquor is distilled, which, flavored with licorice or other aromatics, becomes the famous (or rather perhaps, infamous) arrak, of which many subsequent travelers have confirmed the verdict of the sixteenth-century voyager Pedro Teixeira, himself probably no strict water-drinker, who said of it, "This is the strongest and most dreadful drink that was ever invented, for all of which it finds some notable drinkers."