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Dates have been cultivated since ancient times from Mesopotamia and Babylonia to prehistoric Egypt, possibly as early as 4000 BCE. The Ancient Egyptians used the fruits to make into date wine, and ate them at harvest. There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in eastern Arabia in 6000 BCE. Dates were important as a food (easily stored and transported), a source of building material (the fronds provided fiber for thatching roofs and making baskets, trunks are used for construction), and for making a fermented beverage referred to in cuneiform inscriptions as “The Drink of Life.”
Date palms are medium-sized, growing singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system. Although treelike in form, they do not grow woody tissue, but are able to support themselves with fibrous, stout, overlapping stems, and may grow to 15–25 m tall (50–80 feet). Leaves are 3–5 m long, with spines on the petiole, and pinnately compound, with about 150 leaflets; leaflets are 30 cm (~12 inches) long and 2 cm wide. They are wind-pollinated and dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants), but in commercial production, they are often hand-pollinated for better fruit production, and propagated by cuttings, to minimize the number of male (non-fruiting) trees.
The fruits (known as dates, from the Greek for “finger”) are oval-cylindrical, 3–7 cm long, and 2–3 cm diameter, with a single seed about 2–2.5 cm long and 6–8 mm thick. Three main cultivar groups of date exist: soft (e.g., Medjool), semi-dry (e.g., Deglet Noor), and dry (e.g., Thoory), with numerous varieties in each group, as well as hybrids with other Phoenix species.
Dates, high in sugars and potassium, are eaten fresh or used in prepared foods and desserts, with important regional dishes in the Middle East and India, as well as used in holiday fruitcakes in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to the edible fruits, seeds can be ground into an edible flour, traditionally used to make bread in times of scarcity. The flowers are also edible, used in salads or dried and ground as a condiment. Dates are added to animal feed or fed directly to animals in the Sahara.
Dates are mentioned in the Bible and the Koran, and important in Indian mythology. They have various traditional medicinal uses, including to treat sore throats, colds, and coughs. They are an important crop in tropical areas, with 2009 global production of 7.5 billion metric tons; top producers were Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Their cultural importance is the subject of a feature-length film, Feast of Dates (preview in this YouTube clip).
(Ellison 2001, Morton 1987, Popenoe 1973, Wikipedia 2011)