Phoenix dactylifera

date palm


Phoenix dactylifera

L. 1753

pronounced: FEE-nicks dack-till-IFF-er-uh

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common name: date palm

Phoenix is from the Greek word φοινιξ (phoinix), purple, purple-red, crimson; dactylifera is from the Greek δακτυλος (daktylos), a finger or toe, and the Latin fero, to bear.

Dates have been a staple food of the Middle East for thousands of years. They are believed to have originated around the Persian Gulf, and have been cultivated since ancient times from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt, possibly as early as 4000 BC. There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in eastern Arabia in 6000 BC. In later times, Arabs spread dates around south and southeast Asia, northern Africa, Spain and Italy. Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by Spaniards before 1765.

It is a medium-sized tree, 15 – 25 m tall, often clumped with several trunks from a single root system, but often growing singly as well. The leaves are pinnate, 3 – 5 m long, with spines on the petiole and about 150 leaflets. The leaflets are about 30 cm long and 2 cm broad. The full span of the crown ranges from 6 – 10 m. The tree pictured is on the Picnic Bay seafront, just above the beach, at the Dunoon end. The Date Palm is dioecious.

The fruit (date) is a drupe, oval-cylindrical, 3 – 7 cm long and 2 – 3 cm in diameter. When unripe, dates range from bright red to bright yellow in colour, depending on the variety. The single seed is about 2 – 2.5 cm long and 6 – 8 mm thick. There are 3 main cultivar groups of dates: soft, semi-dry and dry.

Date palms can be easily grown from seed, but only 50% of seedlings will be female and hence fruit-bearing, and dates from seedling plants are often smaller and of poorer quality. Most commercial plantations use offshoots of heavily-cropping cultivars. Plants grown from offshoots will fruit 2 – 3 years earlier than seedling plants.

Dates are naturally wind-pollinated, but in both traditional oasis horticulture and in the modern commercial orchards they are manually pollinated. Natural pollination needs about an equal number of male and female plants; but, with assistance, one male plant can pollinate about 100 females. Some growers do not keep any male plants at all, because at pollination time male flowers are for sale at local markets. Manual pollination is done by skilled workers from ladders, or by climbing the tree in much the same way as people here climb coconut palms. Occasionally, pollen may be blown onto the female flowers by a wind machine. Dates ripen in 4 stages, known throughout the world by their Arabic names; kimri (unripe), khalal (full-sized, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft) and tamr (ripe, sun-dried). Dates are an important traditional crop in Iraq, Arabia, and north-west Africa west to Morocco. They are also cultivated commercially in southern California, Arizona and southern Florida, and also in parts of Turkey. Young date leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable, as is the terminal bud or heart, though its removal kills the palm. The finely ground seeds are mixed with flour to make bread in times of scarcity. The flowers are also edible, and are often used in salads.

Most date production occurs in countries short of trees for good timber. The trunks of male palms and unproductive female palms are readily available, and posts and rafters for huts are made from the wood, although that wood is lighter than that of the coconut palm. It is soft in the centre, and not very durable, but nevertheless it is used for aqueducts, bridges and various types of construction, as well as for parts of dhows. All left-over parts of the trunk are burnt as fuel.

The Picnic Bay date palm is female, and there is no male palm within pollinating distance. Nevertheless, seedless dates are produced on our palm without fertilization, by the process known as Parthenocarpy. These dates are, incidentally, not very palatable!

Several Lepidoptera species use this as a food plant, including:

      • the Orange Palm Dart Cephrenes augiades;
      • the Yellow Palm Dart Cephrenes trichopepla; and
      • the Carob Moth Ectomyelois ceratoniae.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009, 2015
Page last updated 10th March 2019