The origins of dates can be traced back to the Middle East and culinary experts estimate there are more than 3,000 varieties. For thousands of years, the date fruit has been the staple food of the countries in the Middle East and the Indus Valley. As per records, the ancient Egyptians had used the fruit to make date wine. Date cultivation happened in modern day West Pakistan, way back in 7000 BC. Date consumption eventually spread to South West Asia and Northern Africa and Spain. Subsequently, they were introduced to the West. During the late 1800s, settlers from Southwestern America saw similar conditions suitable for growing dates. The date palm tree is native to deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. High heat, access to water, and an arid climate in late summer and autumn is exactly what date palms require to thrive. Now most dates in America are grown in the Coachella Valley and the Bard Valley. Combined, these two areas have over 7500 acres of land for growing date palms. An annual date festival has been held in Indio, California since 1921.
An estimated 8.5 million metric tons of dates are produced annually, with countries in the Middle East and North Africa still being the largest producers. Dates are most often picked when they are the dry stage we are familiar with; however, they are unique in that they experience several stages of ripeness. In the first stage of ripeness, known as the khalalstage, dates have a firm and crunchy texture that is juicy and only slightly sweet. When left to ripen, the date becomes sweeter and less firm and is often sold when it reaches the tamarstage. Most date lovers prefer them at the rutabstage, when they are very soft and sweet. According to fossil records, Considered the oldest cultivated fruit in the world, the date palm has existed for as many as 50 million years.
The scientific name, phoenix Dactylifera, comes from ancient Greece. The coastal region between the Jordan Valley and Mediterranean Sea is known as Phoenicia, Greek for purple land, a nod to the purple dye made from poisonous sea snails that made the area famous. Because the date palm grew abundantly in Phoenicia, it was believed to be the trees homeland. It became known as Phoenix, or tree of Phoenicia, and was a symbol of the region and was featured on Phoenician coins. Dactylifera translates to “finger bearing”, a reference to the oblong shaped dates and the clusters they grow in. Greek mythology connects the date palm to the immortal Phoenix. In Natural History(1 AD), Pliny the Elder describes the phoenix bird, who would build its at the top of a date palm. After 500 years, the bird would catch fire from the flames of the sun and would be reborn from its own ashes. Some legends say that the date palm would die and come back to life along with the famous bird.
Date palms reach a height of approximately 69 – 75 feet. The fruit is a short cylindrical shape about 1-3 inches in length and about an inch in diameter. The color ranges from bright red to bright yellow, to deep purple.