Date palm - Encyclopedia Britannica 1911

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DATE PALM, The dates' of commerce are the fruit of a species of palm, Phoenix dactylifera, a tree which ranges from the Canary Islands through Northern Africa and the south-east of Asia to India. It has been cultivated and much prized throughout most of these regions from the remotest antiquity. Its cultivation and use are described on the mural tablets of the ancient Assyrians. In Arabia it is the chief source of national wealth, and its fruit forms the staple article of food in that country. The tree has also been introduced along the Mediterranean shores of Europe; but as its fruit does not ripen so far north, the European plants are only used to supply leaves for the festival of Palm Sunday among Christians, and for the celebration of the Passover by Jews. It was introduced into the new world by early Spanish missionaries, and is now cultivated in the dry districts of the south-western United States and in Mexico. The date palm is a beautiful tree, growing to a height of from 60 to 80 ft., and its stem, which is strongly marked with old leaf-scars, terminates in a crown of graceful shining pinnate leaves. The flowers spring in branching spadices from the axils of the leaves, and as the trees are unisexual it is necessary in cultivation to fertilize the female flowers by artificial means. The fruit is oblong, fleshy and contains one very hard seed which is deeply furrowed on the inside. The fruit varies much in size, colour and quality under cultivation. Regarding this fruit, W. G. Palgrave (Central and Eastern Arabia) remarked: "Those who, like most Europeans at home, only know the date from the dried specimens of that fruit shown beneath a label in shop-windows, can hardly imagine how delicious it is when eaten fresh and in Central Arabia. Nor is it, when newly gathered, heating, - a defect inherent to the preserved fruit everywhere; nor does its richness, however great, bring satiety; in short it is an article of food alike pleasant and healthy." In the oases of Sahara, and in other parts of Northern Africa, dates are pounded and pressed into a cake for food. The dried fruit used for dessert in European countries contains more than half its weight of sugar, about 6% of albumen, and 12% of gummy matter. All parts of the date palm yield valuable economic products. Its trunk furnishes timber for house-building and furniture; the leaves supply thatch; their footstalks are used as fuel, and also yield a fibre from which cordage is spun.

Date sugar is a valuable commercial product of the East Indies, obtained from the sap or toddy of Phoenix sylvestris, the toddy palm, a tree so closely allied to the date palm that it has been supposed to be the parent stock of all the cultivated varieties. The juice, when not boiled down to form sugar, is either drunk fresh, or fermented and distilled to form arrack. The uses of the other parts and products of this tree are the same as those of the date palm products. Date palm meal is obtained from the stem of a small species, Phoenix farinifera, growing in the hill country of southern India.

For further details see Sir G. Watt, Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (1892); and The Date Palm, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Bulletin No. 53 (W. T. Swingle), 1904..

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