Date palm trees in southwest Qatar. One tree can bear more than a thousand dates, which ripen at different times, allowing for harvest throughout the year. Photo by Alex Sergeev/Wiki (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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Date palm: The cornerstone of civilisation in the Middle East and North Africa

The date palm has been around for millions of years and holds scientific, religious and cultural importance around the world.

The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is an evergreen tree that belongs to the large and diverse palm family. It grows up to 23 metres tall, lives in hot, arid conditions and can survive for up to around 100 years.

It is often said that the date palm grows with its feet in water and head on fire. It requires access to a water source below ground, such as an underground river, and hot temperatures of more than 50°C above ground to bear fruits.

Despite its need for heat, this resilient plant can survive cold temperatures below 0°C and even withstand some frost, but only for a short periods. If cold temperatures persist, the tree will stop growing and its leaves will become damaged.

Shahina Ghazanfar, a Science Research Leader at Kew Gardens, has been researching the possible origins of the date palm. She says, 'date palms are an important feature of the landscape of all Middle Eastern countries, both as a useful plant and as a landscape tree'.

How the date palm sustains life in the desert

As a keystone species of oases agrosystems, the date palm can alter the microclimate of its desert environment. Its roots are long and deep, allowing space for other plants to grow around it, and its robust body protects them from sand blown by the wind. The date palm provides food and shelter for many creatures and people, whether that be local residents or those travelling through.

A pale yellow date plant flower on a tree.

A wild date plant found in Ganeshpuri, India. Small, pale yellow male and female flowers are borne in clusters on separate trees. They are pollinated mostly by the wind but also sometimes by insects. In modern agriculture, farmers use one carefully selected male flower to artificially pollinate a crop of 25-50 females. © Dinesh Valke/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The date palm has been in existence for around 50 million years.

'Stone tools and rock carvings discovered in the Nefud Desert in Northern Arabia show humans have been eating dates since the Middle Stone Age, which was about 200,000 years ago,' says Shahina.

One of the most important events in human history is when people changed from hunting and gathering food to growing their own crops around 11,000 years ago. The date palm was one of the first plants to be cultivated and therefore plays a significant role in the start of modern civilisation.

'The date palm's fruits are sweet and nutritious - and ripe dates don't rot - making them one of the foods that ancient people could use and transport easily,' adds Shahina.

Based on archaeological findings, the plant was most likely first domesticated in the Persian Gulf around 6,000 years ago, probably from wild populations found in Oman.

'Archaeobotanical evidence shows that date palms probably grew wild in several parts of the Near East, but these original populations have long been displaced by agriculture,' explains Shahina. 'Genetic evidence suggests that wild date palms still survive in Oman, and that the Arabian Peninsula was the region where date palms were first taken into cultivation.'

Since then, the date palm has become the foundation of agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa. It's also been successfully introduced to other parts of the world, from Mexico and California to Pakistan and Turkey.

The tree is an important source of food, material and commerce in desert life. Cultivating the plant has offered stable wealth and economic growth for populations living in hot climates for thousands of years.

Today, Egypt is the world's largest producer of the fruit, exporting 1.7 million tonnes of dates in 2021. Other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran follow closely.

'The fact that date palms can withstand a hot and dry climate and moderately saline soils and produce an abundance of sugary fruit that can be stored, has contributed much to the success of this species in the Middle East and North Africa,' says Shahina.

A date palm tree leaning to one side.

A date palm tree in Burkino Faso, West Africa. The fruits change from green to yellow, brown, mahogany and black as they mature. © RBG Kew.

The importance of dates in religion and culture

Dates hold significance in all three major religions. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad considered dates to be a superior fruit and encouraged people to break their fasts with them. The date palm is mentioned 22 times in the Quran - the most a fruit tree is stated in the holy book. This includes the story of Mary eating dates while in labour with Jesus to ease her pains.

'Dates are a part of the Muslim identity,' says Shahina. 'The tree is mentioned several times in the Quran as a source of food and fibre, help in childbirth, providing shade and symbolising wisdom. Dates are considered a fruit, food, medicine, drink and sweetmeat.'

Dates also play an important role in many cultures. In the Middle East and South Asia, dates are available in abundance from street vendors and shops. The fruits, which symbolise gratitude, generosity and good health, are served to guests in people's homes, at weddings, religious ceremonies and festivals.

'Dried dates play an important role in weddings among the Muslims in Pakistan and India,' adds Shahina. 'Dried dates and sugar sweets are distributed among the guests in celebration once the marriage of the bride and groom has been solemnised. This practice, though losing popularity, is making a come-back among Muslim communities.'

'Date festivals are held in several countries of the Arabian Peninsula. There, date growers bring their date varieties to sell. Over the last decade, date festivals are beginning to attract tourists as a cultural festival.'

A man sells dates at a market.

A man selling a variety of dates in Kuwait. There are more than 200 varieties of the fruit and the most popular ones include medjool, piarom and deglet noor. © Erin Johnson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The multitude of benefits of the date palm

Dates are resilient to pests, do not rot when ripe so can be stored and transported easily and offer countless benefits when eaten.

'There is an old Arabic saying - the uses of dates are as many as days in the year,' says Shahina.

Dates are high in fibre, protein, natural sugars and various vitamins and minerals, which can help to tackle many health issues, such as cancer, diabetes, liver disorders and many more.

In some eastern cultures, pregnant women are encouraged to eat dates daily to help strengthen the muscles needed for childbirth and reduce bleeding. Soft dates are rubbed onto the palate of newborn babies to help them kickstart their new life.

Other parts of the tree have many uses too. The trunks are used for making roofs, the leaves are used to weave rugs, baskets and screens and the seeds are used to make prayer beads and sometimes ground for animal feed. Old trees are felled, and their trunks are used in light building work, mostly in villages. Accessories made from the date palm are common in fashion, in people's homes and within hotel and garden architectural designs.

'It's difficult to imagine a landscape in the Arab World without date palms,' says Shahina. 'The tree, dates and products made from them are very much a part of Arab life.'

'I've always had some dates in my field bag when I'd go plant collecting in the Sultanate of Oman and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. I've found them energising, and eating just one or two dates was quite enough to keep me going for a few more hours.'

Perennial plants are receiving more attention as a possible answer to future food security. The date palm has sustained life for millennia and it's likely the plant will continue to do so for many years to come.