Palms From the Land of Milk and Honey

Palms are trees that grow in the full sun of warm and dry or humid climates, such as the Middle East, northern Africa, the European Mediterranean, Mexico, California, Florida, and Arizona. Not here on the Northern Plains.

Waving palm fronds at a Palm Sunday church service and eating dates in a Christmas fruitcake is a thin association with palms. Yet as we recognize that climate change affects our everyday lives, useful plants like palms, with historical records of successful adaptability, will become more widely appreciated.

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is an ultimate heirloom plant. Fossilized ancestral date palm remains have been found from 50 million years ago. Date palms were domesticated about 4000 B.C. Its dried fruit shelf life was highly valued when dates remained edible for years.

Some dates were boiled and strained for honey since its fruit weighs about half sugar. “Land of milk and honey” is a phrase in the Bible that refers to dates instead of bees.

The date palm can be grown from seed to first fruiting in about four years, with about 15 full-bearing years. The tree lives about 100 years or so. Each tree produces more than 1,000 dates per season. Dates are a source of sweetener, alcohol, and vinegar. The tree is used for timber and leaflet basketry and is valued as a landscape ornamental.

Some dates with pits (drupe seeds) from the grocery store are viable if planted in a container of sandy soil. There are drawbacks. The plant requires a sunny, warm location. Each male or female four-year-old tree requires fertilization to produce fruit. The tree may reach 75 feet in height, making re-potting and plant care challenging.

Yet an Israeli horticulturist, Elaine Solowey, has tried to grow date palms from ancient seeds near the Dead Sea. Conditions near the Dead Sea are hot, dry, and salty. Seeds two thousand years old were taken from an archaeological excavation site and stored. Solowey and a research partner asked to try growing the seeds in 2004. Solowey has tried growing a wide variety of plants in the desert, but one of the ancient date palm seeds germinated. She thinks that the area around the Dead Sea has favorable preservation features that include low U.V. radiation, which was responsible for viable seeds. Now she has harvested dates and viable seeds from her ancient date palms.

Her record of growing ancient seeds has been broken. Russian researchers later germinated seeds found frozen in permafrost for 32,000 years. Still, Solowey is convinced that more is to be learned with the ancient date seeds. “Resurrection genomics” is a study of ancient DNA compared with the DNA of plants today. Plants of today that have ancient ancestors, such as date palms, may have DNA records with plant information in many research areas, such as climate change. For more about date palms, see the November/December Smithsonian magazine, available for reading at the Yankton Community Library.

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3 thoughts on “Palms From the Land of Milk and Honey

  1. Male date palms produce no fruit. In old orchards, they are installed in a grid pattern, and since they are taller, they stand up above the females that they pollinate. Some modern orchards are all female trees of a single cultivar. They get pollinated mechanically with pollen collected from orchard grown male trees. A fruitless all male orchard sounds silly to me. Date palms became a fad as urban development displaced orchards around Las Vegas in Nevada. Prettier females were recycled without male pollinators so that they did not produce messy fruit. Many were recycled into regions where the weather is not warm enough to promote fruit of good quality anyway. Some male trees were recycled without female trees within highway rest stops. Such resto stops are too far from urban regions, where their pollen might be a problem.
    A few palms are very tolerant of cold weather, even in new England. Windmill palm is not uncommon in Seattle, particularly since so many Californians live there. It also lives in Oklahoma. Scrub palm, which is also known as dwarf palmetto, is about as tolerant to frost.

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