History of Dates

Although the date tree’s origin is lost in antiquity, the date palm has existed from prehistoric times. Fossilized remains estimated to be millions of years old have been found in Asia. Dates may very well be man’s oldest cultivated fruit, believed to have been cultivated as early as 8000 years ago.

An old saying that the date palm must have “its head in the sun and its feet in water” refers to the fact that date palms need high heat, low humidity and a constant source of ground water to produce fruit. It thrives, therefore, only in the world’s few desert regions.  

Arabic legend tells of the date palm’s creation: After God had finished molding Man from earth; He took the remaining material and shaped it into a date palm which he placed in the Garden of Paradise (Eden).

Birth of California’s Date Industry in the Coachella Valley

In 1904, Bernard G. Johnson, established a UDSA experimental station near Mecca, California. Johnson studied the desert’s climate and date palms’ growth, keeping thorough records of the six varieties he cultivated from offshoots brought over by the USDA in the 1890’s obtained from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq.

Three years later, a major flood formed the Salton Sea forcing Johnson to move his experimental garden just west of Indio. He imported Deglet Noor offshoots from Algeria and Iraq for this garden and continued nurturing the plants. His gardens flourished, proving the Coachella Valley’s potential for becoming a date growing region. Johnson today is regarded as the “father” of California’s Date industry.

Date palms are grown either from offshoots of the mother tree or from seeds. Commercially grown dates trees are from offshoots to ensure desired date qualities. The scientific name, Phoenix dactylifera, refers to feather palms that may grow more than 100 feet and live more than 200 years. Date palms are planted in gardens or orchards.

Date Palms are dioecious – having male and female trees. Females bear the fruit, males produce pollen. Commercial date gardens typically have one male tree and 50 female trees planted per acre.

Natural pollination by the wind is not efficient. Hand pollination is one of the oldest agricultural techniques. Mechanical pollination mixes pollen collected from the male flowers with a carrier such as flour and is dusted on just-opened female flower clusters. 

Date palms are said to thrive with their “feet in water and heads in the sun” because they need plenty of ground water to drink, but high heat and arid weather to produce fruit. Therefore, date palms produce fruit only in the world’s hot, arid climates.

Date ripen in six to seven months and are harvested from September through December. Date harvesters, or palmeros, climb up ladders or are lifted by mechanical lifts to either hand pick the fruit, or cut the ripened clusters into containers that vertically shake off the fruit.

In the packing house, dates are fumigated and cleaned with water sprays, roller brushes or soft towels and dried with warm air before being graded by hand.

Storing California Dates

Fresh dates with 23% or less moisture is relatively safe from microbiological deterioration. However, physiological deterioration can result in darkening and loss of flavor and aroma.

Shelf life studies show the following varieties storage options:

Deglet Noor Variety

Medjool Variety

  • Room Temperature

    70 degrees F, 8 – 12 months

  • Refrigeration

    45 degrees F, 12 – 18 months

  • Frozen

    -5 degrees F, 30 – 40 months

  • Room Temperature

    70 degrees F, 4 – 6 months

  • Refrigeration

    45 degrees F, 6 – 9 months

  • Frozen

    -5 degrees F, 15 – 20 months

Reconditioning – Rehydrating Dry Dates

Dates naturally tend to become dryer when stored. To refresh a few dates after a long storage: place dates in a microwavable bowl with no more than a tablespoon of water. Place in the microwave for 20 seconds.

Softening a larger portion of dates, place in a microwave steamer pot with a half cup of water and steam for 1 minute in the microwave. If further hydration is needed, heat in 30 second increments until dates are soft and hydrated.