Jewels of the Desert

Dates - An Old World Tradition

Appropriately called “the tree of life” date palms (phoenix dactylifera) are arguably one of the first foods and are one of the most important plants of arid deserts. It has provided food, ornamental decoration, material for shelter, fiber, fuel and has even been used for religious purposes.

Jewels of the DesertIn 1898, the USDA created a special department of men called Agriculture Explorers to travel the globe and go searching for new food crops to bring back to the U.S. for farmers to grow. Based upon the United States Department of Agriculture recommendation and an American botanist named Walter Swingle it was decided that experimental date gardens would be established with offshoots from Morocco in Thermal, CA right around 1904 due to temperature and soil conditions that mimicked the Sahara desert. After offshoots were quarantined in Nevada for a few years Oasis Date Gardens acquired some of the original offshoots from those experiments and are still harvested to this day. Commercial fruit production in the United States is primarily established inside Coachella Valley, California across the desert to Bard Valley near Yuma, Arizona. Nine trees eventually multiplied into five thousand making Oasis Date Gardens one of the largest Medjool groves in the U.S. for decades.

Growing conditions for Date palms are hot dry conditions where daytime temperatures are within the range of 78-122 degrees Fahrenheit. Production of fruit from trees generally commence between 3-8 years and full production is between 10-15 years. Yields decline after 40-50 years. It is said that date trees like their feet in the water and their head in the sun.

Seedlings rarely adopt the characteristics of the parent tree so in order to clone the varietal characteristics offshoots are used to plant instead. The date palm can grow to a height of 100 feet in 80 to 100 years. The fruit comes from flowers that are hand pollinated and become rachillae which are the fruit-bearing strands. Date palms are dioecious which means that flowers and pollen grow on separate trees a male pollen producing tree and a female producing flowers that then turn into fruit after pollination. Since only female trees produce dates, at the end of March cultivators climb up the male trees, collect the pollen and hand pollinate the blossoms inside the female trees flower bunches to ensure a reliable, successful crop.

The fruit develop and ripen in stages while color and sugar levels evolve throughout those stages.

Kimri is the growing stage during which fruit are green, immature, still developing and not full sized.

Khalal is the stage at which fruit attain their maximum size and are yellow or red depending on the variety.

Rutab is the stage from the time the fruit begin to soften at their tips until they are cured and fully ripe.

Tamar is the fully cured or dried stage of the fruit when it will be the sweet flavor you get to enjoy after harvest.

Each tree generates between 100-300 lbs of fruit depending on the variety and age of the tree. Harvesting of fruit normally occurs from mid-September until early December depending on weather and temperature. Harvesting is done manually to ensure that the utmost quality is obtained. The dates are then brought into the processing facility to be sorted and cleaned.

Date palm cultivation is labor intensive; date clusters must be hand pollinated; must be covered with fine-mesh bags to keep out insects, birds and rain; the fronds are thinned and the dates are hand-picked. The palmero’s which are our fearless workers scaling up and down the trees in extension buckets provide us the fruit of their labor.

Oasis Date Gardens has been intricate to later restocking medjool date trees back to Morocco as well as developing the medjool industry in Israel.