"Honor your maternal aunt, the palm," said the prophet Muhammad to the Muslims; "for it was created from the clay left over after the creation of Adam (on whom be peace and the blessings of God!)." And again, "There is among the trees one which is preeminently blessed, as is the Muslim among men; it is the palm."
It is in this reverential aspect that the Semitic world has always regarded the date palm; and with sound reason, for its economic importance to the desert dweller as the source of both food and shelter is even greater than that of the coconut palm to the Polynesian.
Only in recent years, however, have oriental methods of date-culture been scientifically examined and tested by horticulturists. By far the greater part of this work must be credited to investigators in the United States. The first modern importation to this country was of palms rooted in tubs, shipped from Egypt to California in 1890. Better methods of shipping offshoots were gradually worked out, and introductions from all parts of the world have been made in ever-increasing numbers in the last quarter of a century.
Meanwhile, continued study has been given to methods of culture, with the result that the problems of the rooting of offshoots and the ripening of the fruit, which were at first serious sources of loss, have been brilliantly solved, and many others adequately dealt with. This work has been done by the United States Department of Agriculture, the experiment stations of California and Arizona, and many private growers; and any history of the progress of scientific date-culture will certainly record the names of such pioneers as Bruce Drum-mond, David Fairchild, R. H. Forbes, George E. Freeman, Bernard Johnston, Fred N. Johnson, Thomas H. Kearney, Silas C. Mason, James H. Northrop, F. O. Popenoe, Paul Popenoe, Walter T. Swingle, and A. E. Vinson.
As a result of the work not only of the Americans but of French horticulturists in North Africa and English in Egypt and India, the culture of the date palm is to-day perhaps better understood than that of any other fruit of which this volume treats. There is room, however, for immense improvement in method in practically all of the older date-growing regions, and the introduction of more scientific culture will add greatly to the national wealth in many parts of the Orient.
Such an important date-growing country as Egypt does not now produce enough dates for its own consumption; for although it is a moderate exporter it is still more of an importer of low-grade dates from the Persian Gulf. The markets of North America and Europe have scarcely been touched. Before the Great War the annual importation into New York was thirty to forty million pounds, - only five or six ounces a head of the country's population. This is a ridiculously low rate of consumption for a fruit possessing the food-value of the date, and which can be produced so cheaply. There would seem to be no reason why it should not become an integral part of the diet of American families, being eaten not as a dessert or luxury only, but as a source of nourishment. So regarded the market is almost unlimited, and considering how few are the areas available for growing first-class dates, over-production seems hardly possible.
The date palm characteristically consists of a single stem with a cluster of offshoots at the base and a stiff crown of pinnate leaves at the top. It reaches a maximum height of about 100 feet. If the offshoots are allowed to grow, the palm eventually becomes a large clump with a single base.
The plant is dioecious in character, i.e., staminate and pistillate, or male and female, flowers are produced by separate individuals. The inflorescence is of the same general character in both sexes, - a long stout spathe which bursts and discloses many thickly crowded branchlets. Upon these are the small, waxy-white, pollen-bearing male flowers, or the greenish female blossoms in clusters of three. After pollination, two out of each three of the latter usually drop, leaving only one to proceed to maturity. Chance development of a blossom that has not been pollinated occasionally gives rise to unfounded rumors of the discovery of seedless dates; genuine seedless varieties have, however, been credibly reported.
The fruit varies in shape from round to long and slender, and in length from 1 to 3 inches. While immature it is hard and green; as it ripens it turns yellow, or, in some varieties, red. The flesh of the ripe fruit is soft and sirupy in some varieties, dry and hard in others. In many kinds, including most of those that ripen early, the sugar-content never attains sufficient concentration to prevent fermentation; the fruit of such varieties must, therefore, be eaten while fresh.
In cultivation about 90 per cent of the male palms are usually destroyed, since they can bear no fruit.
The presence of offshoots around the base is one of the simplest ways to distinguish the date palm, botanically known as Phoenix dactylifera, L., from the wild palm of India (Phoenix sylvestris, Roxb.) and the Canary Island palm (P. canariensis, Hort.); from the latter, which is often grown in the United States for ornamental purposes, it may also be distinguished by its more slender trunk, and by its leaves being glaucous instead of bright green.
Phoenix dactylifera is commonly supposed, following the study of 0. Beccari,1 to be a native of western India or the Persian Gulf region. Evidently, long before the dawn of history, it was at home in Arabia, where the Semites seem to have accorded it religious honors because of its important place in their food supply, its dioecious character, and the intoxicating drink which was manufactured from its sap, and which in the cuneiform inscriptions is called "the drink of life."
Traditions indicate that when the Semites invaded Babylonia they found in that country their old friend the date palm, particularly at Eridu, the Ur of the Chaldees (Mughayr of modern maps) whence Abram set out on his migration to Palestine. It is even suggested that the Semitic immigrants settled at Eridu, which was then a seaport, on account of the presence of the date palms, one of which was for many centuries a famous oracle-tree. Several competent orientalists see in the date palm of Eridu the origin of the Biblical legend of the Garden of Eden.