In the distant arid desert grows a wholesome fruit on date palms that nourishes everyone from the toughest athletes to the most delicate infants. Whether you fancy Sukkari, Saggae, Ajwa or Medjool, the variety of dates is as vast and diversified as the ocean. With over 500 kinds of dates, Sukkari is our most prized possession when we seek moist, sweet and caramel-like flavour, whereas Ajwa is the go to for its medicinal healing. Saggae dates are a recent addition for those who prefer a less sweet date than the Sukkari date, and for those who love a fibrous, dense yet moist date.
The origin of dates is unknown due to ancient cultivation but they are believed to have been cultivated in the Middle East region from around 6000 B.C. Fossil records show that the date palm has existed for at least 50 million years.
Since their discovery, dates have widely spread in many regions and were spread by Arabs to Spain, Italy, South West Asia and North Africa. Then they were further spread by Spaniards to Mexico and California.
The Date Palm
The date palm has separate male and female plants. Only fifty percent of seedlings will be female that are grown from seed but because they grow from seed their seedling plants are often of lower quality. Most industrial plantations use cuttings of heavily cropping cultivars. Medjool is the main cultivar that produces particularly high yields of large, sweet fruit. Plants grown from cuttings will fruit 2 to 3 years earlier than seedling plants.
The date palm productive life is limited to the years when the tree is smaller and the fruit is easier to harvest. Although the date palm is capable of living up to 100 years or more and can reach height between 15-30 metres. Their crown of green leaves grow between 3 to 6 metres in length.
The Date Pollination Method
In a natural setting, dates are pollinated by wind. However, in the commercial orchards they are pollinated manually. Natural pollination occurs with about an equal number of male and female plants. On the other hand, one male can pollinate up to 100 females. The male date palm is valued as a pollinator, this allows the farmers to use their resources for many more fruit producing female plants. Some farmers do not even maintain any male plants as male flowers become available at local markets at pollination time. Manual pollination is carried out by skilled labourers using ladders, or in some areas such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia they climb the tree using a special climbing tool that wraps around the tree trunk and the farmers back to keep him attached to the trunk while climbing. Less often, the pollen may be blown onto the female flowers by a wind machine.
The Date Seed & How Dates Grow
Dates contain a single seed about 2-2.5 cm long and 6-8 mm thick. The type of fruit depends on the glucose, fructose and sucrose content. The seed of Sukkari is much larger than the seed of Saggae or Ajwa.
Dates grow in large clusters that develop beneath the leaves and can weigh as much as 40 pounds. Large trees will yield more than a 1,000 dates each year, although they do not all ripen at the same time so several harvests are required. In order to get fruit of marketable quality, the bunches of dates must be thinned and bagged or covered before ripening so that the remaining fruits grow larger and are protected from weather and pests such as birds.
The Stages of Date Ripening
Dates, as well as having different colours, tastes and textures throughout their ripening stages, they also have different names in Arabic for each stage.
Stages Weeks English Arabic Description
First Stage 1 week – Hababook – The dates are small round and light green with horizontal stripes.
Second Stage 5-17 weeks – Green Date Kimri – The dates become oval, greener and are bitter.
Third Stage 19-25 weeks – Red/Yellow Date Khalal – The next stage is the early ripening stage where the dates are yellow or red, have grown to their full size and taste crunchy but dry with a slight sweet taste.
This is where you would get a barhi date with a crunchy outer shell.
Fourth Stage 20-28 weeks – Wet Date Rutub – This stage the date is ripe, soft and moist. At this stage you are enjoying the delightful sukkari dates.
Final Stage 29 weeks – Dried Date Tamar – Final stage of ripening. At this stage you will find the saggae, ajwa and medjool date.
The last three stages of ripening are when the dates are picked, fumigated, cleaned, separated, packaged and then sold to the consumer. Barhi dates are the yellow clusters that are often found in grocery stores which are crispy and a bit astringent because they are in the Khalal stage. Once the crispy yellow flesh begins to soften, it sweetens and becomes a Rutub like our famous Sukkari Dates. Rutub require refrigeration to prolong this stage, before they transform to their final stage of a dried date. Saggae, although it is a dried date, is very soft and moist in comparison to other dried dates.