The date palm is the ultimate emblem of sustainability. Without this tree life would have been unlivable in the region. Date palms flourished in irrigated oases such as Al Ain and Dhaid, but are also found in wadi valleys, on fertile plains watered by run-off from the mountains, and in desert gardens like those found in Liwa. Here date palm roots reach down to the water gathered just beneath the surface of the absorbent sand.
Dates have been supplementing the diet of local people for over 7,000 years and have been cultivated as a crop for over 5,000 years. But following the introduction of the innovative falaj system of irrigation around 4,000 years ago, dates took a dominant role in the life of the Emirates and the cultivation of the date palm has always been by far the most important form of agriculture in the area.
In every household, on board ships, or when travelling in the desert, either fresh or conserved dates were eaten at least as a supplement to other food. Often they were the main source of nourishment along with camel milk.
Boiled and packed into palm leaves, dates kept for a long time and combined with camel milk provided a highly nutritious meal. The flesh of the date is 75 to 80 per cent sugar (glucose or fructose, known as invert sugar). Like honey, invert sugar has a host of good properties: it is easily digestible, restricts harmful bacterial acitivity and provides instant energy. Since dates have very little fat and are rich in vitamins A, B and D, they form a perfect complement to camels' milk, which contains vitamin C and fat. This explains why the classical bedu diet, which appeared to be so restrictive, was in fact remarkably nutritious and sustaining.
Dates, supplemented by bread, salt-fish and goat, and sometimes camel, were also the staple food of people living in settlements. Traditionally used as cattle fodder, not even the date stone was wasted. Dates were and still remain a much-valued symbol of hospitality and a very popular food in the Emirates. They are also the first food consumed on breaking the fast as the sun sets in Ramadan.
But it was not just for their fruit that date palms were treasured. Date plams provided much-need shelter and shade for humans, animals and plants. Palm leaves and fronds were used to make fans, food trays, food covers, baskets, mats, and'arish houses and boats. Fronds were even bound together and lined with pitch to make water tanks. The fibre of the trunk was turned into rope, fish traps, brushes, sacks, stuffing for mattresses, and the wood was used to make furniture, boxes, roof beams and many other items.
Today, date palms constitute 98 per cent of fruit trees in the UAE and the country is one of the world's top ten producers of dates.
Pollination of the date palm is a complicated process because the date palm is dioecious (male and female flowers do not occur on the same tree). Wind-pollination is possible but in palm gardens since male trees cannot bear fruit and were normally discarded, it was common practice to pollinate date palms manually. This was a very labour-intensive process and it also had to be completed in a very restricted time-frame during which the female flower is receptive to male pollen, a period of less than two days.
Nowadays large-scale propagation of the date palm in the UAE takes place in tissue culture laboratories. The plants are produced and grown to a stable stage in nurseries before they are sold to farmers. The varieties on sale are completely pest and disease-free, grow faster than normal offshoots, have a strong root systen and a survival rate of close to 100 per cent.
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