Date Farming ABCs in California

Often Nutmeg’s most intriguing encounters start at the market and end in a DATE!

Date Palms

…a date plantation in Indio, California.

80 Fahrenheit on the car’s external temperature gauge, although, you cannot always trust the dashboard dials on this old, 1991 model it had to be at least that hot. The AC no longer works, Nutmeg had all the windows open, just imagine August around here. It is difficult to conceive that anything can grow in the harsh California desert climate where annual temperatures range from low 30s to 110+ degrees.

Halawai Dates

Halawai Dates

Climate aside, it is hard to believe there is any land left for agriculture in this region where the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains appear like a faux Hollywood backdrop behind the endless shopping plazas and big-box stores. Yet, in reality all you need is a small acreage, access to water and a desire to put in the sweat equity to develop your own date plantation.

Nutmeg met Arthur of Futterman Farms at the Certified Farmers’ Market in Palm Desert, where he sells his healthy date varieties. The following, is what Nutmeg learnt in her tour of his date farm:

African coast (Northern) and the Arabic Peninsula are most likely the indigenous geographic areas for date palm trees. The soil conditions, air quality and temperatures are still ideal for date cultivation in those countries.

Biblical references to Phoenix dactylifera, the date palm, are numerous. The tree was highly valued for the fruit, the fronds (bows) that were used for roofing and baskets, and the wood, which was used for construction.

Nasty Thorns

Nasty Thorns

Cost of dates ranges by variety. The cultivation of dates is highly manually intensive requiring 6-12 days of work per tree including pruning, pollination, monitoring and harvesting. This arduous physical work drives the price of dates.

Date palm tree is considered the oldest fruit-bearing tree in the world. Archaeological data indicates there may have been cultivation as long ago as 6000BC.

Egyptian Nile Valley was home to the date palm by 2000BC. Stone carvings of the tree indicate the passage of time with the fronds symbolizing the months.

Female trees are the ones that produce the fruit. A flower on the male tree is picked, and the pollen is harvested and dried. At the opportune moment, the female date tree is pollinated, and the fruit bunches begin to develop. A single tree may produce 100 pounds of dates.

Barhi Dates

Barhi Dates

Gathering of the fruit annually is determined by the farmer and Mother Nature’s conditions. In Southern California, the harvest usually starts in late August and runs into September. Daytime temperatures push to over 100F during that period.

Heat the plants thrive in hot climates, they like long hot days and cooler nights. They can tolerate a bit of cold and even an occasional sub-zero temperature although, not for long. A date palm is happiest with roots in the water and their head in the heat.

Iran harvests over one million tons of dates annually, the leader in global production.

Jericho is known as the city of palm trees.

Knowledge – Unconfirmed legend – Is it possible the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was the date palm and not the apple?

Latitude – Date palms will grow at the extremes of 10ºN and 39ºN the “sweet spot” is found 24°N and 34°N.

Medjool or Medjoul– May be the most recognizable type of date. This variety is relatively large in size and is often the most expensive type. Some refer to the Medjool as the “king” of dates.

Medjool Dates

Medjool dates

Nutritionally dates are little powerhouses. A single date is a low-calorie snack, very high in potassium, essential minerals and a good source of fibre.

Offshoots sprout near the base of an existing date palm. The strongest plants are selected, carefully disengaged from the truck of the mother tree and replanted to grow on their own. Trees grown from offshoots typically produce fruit 2-3 years before a those grown from seed. Some trees will produce as many as 30 offshoots, but typically less than 5 will be selected for replanting.


Pollen from the flower of a male tree is essential to the process. In commercial operations, this is done by hand. In nature, the pollen is transported to the female trees by birds, insects and wind.

Qatar is striving to be the global leader in date palm research. Scientists are working on a number of projects including genome mapping in order to classify male and female plants at the seedling stage.

Ripe dates are sweet; they may be soft or a little chewier if they have been sun-dried. Arabic terminology is still used to reference the ripening stages; kimri (still growing, unripe), khlal (full-size, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft), tamar (ripe, dried).

Seedlings – Growing a date palm from seed takes longer to produce saleable fruit than from an offshoot. The mix of male/female plants and specific variety of date is not known for years.

Tamar is the Hebrew word for date palm.

Unripe dates tend to be more yellow or gold in colour, the fruit is crunchier and less sweet. Unripe dates are used to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Varieties – There are at least 20 species, over 100 cultivars and several thousand varieties.

Water – Despite the fact that the trees grow in desert conditions they are not drought resistant. These are thirsty plants that need drip irrigation or a consistent water supply to grow and produce fruit.

Dried date flower

Xmas – December in Provence, dates are included as one of the 13 desserts on December 24th representing those countries where Jesus lived.

Years of patience and expense are required before the trees bear fruit. From seedlings, it may take up to 12 years for a productive harvest.

Zahidi dates are known as the golden date for their colour.

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