There are an estimated eight million date palms (Phoenix dactylifera; in Arabic, nakhl) in Oman, and travelling around the Batinah you’ll rarely be out of sight of the endless plantations which blanket the coast. Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years; the wood of the date palm also provides an important source of building material, while leaves and fronds are used to make baskets, ropes and medicines – a remarkable variety of uses which has led to the date palm’s popular description as the “tree of life”.
The date palm is one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world. They are believed to have been grown since ancient times from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt, possibly as early as 6000 BC – one of the first human efforts at systematic agricultural cultivation. The date palm is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Mohammed urged his followers to “cherish your father’s sister, the palm tree”, and Muslims still traditionally break their Ramadan fast each night by eating a date.
Dates also underpinned the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Omani interior, providing a small, light, concentrated and long-lasting source of nutrition which was perfectly adapted for the Bedu’s itinerant lifestyle. Dates are something of a self-contained nutritional super-fruit, and an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Their high sugar content (40–80 percent) also protects them against bacterial contamination and makes them extremely durable – dried dates can last for years. They can also be pressed for their juice, used to make wine, syrup and vinegar; in earlier times, boiling date syrup was used as an offensive weapon poured onto attackers below fort walls.
According to a traditional saying, the date palm “needs its feet in water and its head in fire”, a combination provided in Oman by intensive falaj irrigation and the country’s burning summer temperatures. Date palms grow rapidly, up to 40cm per year, reaching heights of up to around 30m. Trees can live for around 150 years, producing over 100kg of dates annually. Over forty varieties of date are grown in Oman, with over 150,000 tonnes of fruit produced annually – easily the largest crop in the country, and, until the discovery of oil, far and away the most economically important.
Dates take around seven months to mature. Unripe dates range in colour from green through to red or yellow, becoming darker and sweeter as they ripen. There are hundreds of different varieties, ranging widely in size and colour — the best are highly prized by local connoisseurs, much as fine wines are in France. There are three basic types: soft (such as the popular Medjool variety), semi-dry (such as Deglet Noor) and dry. Only the female date palm produces fruit, however. In the wild, trees are entirely wind-pollinated, and yield little fruit. Cultivated date palms are pollinated by hand, with flowers from male date palms being sold in local souks and then strategically placed in the branches of female trees (although wind machines to blow pollen onto the female flowers are also sometimes used). Most fruits are harvested between August and December. In many places, dates are still handpicked, although mechanical shakers may be used in larger plantations.