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A Date to Remember

Saddle up your camel and head for the oasis for an unforgettable date with Gary.
Gary Parker, 4 Barrens Close, Woking, Surrey
Chamaerops No. 16, published online 23-08-2002

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Sand, sun, blue sky and Date palms

If palm enthusiasts were asked to name their favourite palm, it would be fair to say that not many would name the 'true' Date palm, Phoenix dactylifera. Nevertheless, the date palm is one of the world's most important palm species. While on holiday in Tunisia, my wife, Jo, and I decided to visit a remote oasis in the Sahara desert, to experience date palms en masse and to learn how dates are grown.

Tozeur is the largest oasis in Tunisia, situated where the Sahara reaches up into the virtually uninhabited southern half of the country. We flew south from the Tunisian capital, Tunis, over hundreds of kilometres of semi-desert, and landed on a featureless, sand-swept plain that represents Tozeur's airport. The flatness was broken only by two huge Boeing 747s with peeling khaki paintwork and sand drifts building up around them. Apparently they belonged to the Iraqi air force, which had left them there when the Gulf War began and had so far failed to return for them. Already, they appeared too sandblasted to ever take to the skies again.

Tozeur has the feel of an islamicised version of an American Wild West frontier town. Simple mud-brick houses line dusty streets filled with old men on donkeys and young men on mopeds. Families of goats lie in the shade, surveying the activity. Six times a day, wailing songs issue from the minaret, which is by law the tallest building in town, to summon the townsfolk to the mosque for prayer. Women are seldom seen, because a strict form of Islam is favoured in these remote regions, virtually confining women to the home. When women do appear, they are totally covered in black fabric, like children playing ghosts, except that even eyeholes would be considered immodest. Presumably they can see through the fabric to some extent.

Accurate road maps of the region are hard to come by (the government fears that maps might aid invaders, and perhaps their fears are not entirely unfounded since Tozeur is near the unmarked, contested borders of Algeria and Libya) but providing you can communicate (Berber, Arabic, or French), you can hire a donkey cart taxi to take you to any of the sights in the region - there being two main ones, palm trees (oasis) and lack of palm trees (desert).

The date palms surround the town, 500,000 of them, fruiting continuously to produce 30,000 tonnes of dates annually (60kg per palm). The palms are densely planted in the poor soil, with groups of fifty or a hundred trees carefully divided into individual growers' plots using palm frond fences. Phoenix dactylifera is dioecious (separate male and female plants), and most growers have a single male palm. To maximise fertilisation, the male flowers are removed and tied among the female flowers. Occasionally understory plants such as figs and bananas are grown, and prickly pears (mainly Opuntia ficusindica) are cultivated on rocky outcrops.

Irrigation streams meander through the oasis, crossed by palm-trunk footbridges. The water, from an underground supply, is rationed with zealous precision using complex rules developed in 1300AD. The system is essentially feudal, with wealthy landowners controlling the water supply and extracting the bulk of the crop from impoverished growers.

Dates can be grown in cooler regions, but only fierce desert climates produce the top quality 'deglet en nour' dates. The locals say that the date palm likes its head in the fire and its feet in the water. Summer days are hot, 30 to 50 degrees Celsius, with the nights cooling down to perhaps 15 degrees since there is no cloud to retain the warmth. Winters can be cold. Temperatures fall to around zero most nights, and dry frosts of as low as -s degrees are not uncommon, although winter days generally see a rise to about 20 degrees. Rainfall is a meagre three inches annually, and relative humidity ranges between perhaps 20 and 40% - the lowest on earth.

Tozeur and the other traditional oases like it have survived for over two thousand years by tapping shallow underground water supplies, which are replenished annually by rains in the mountains. But with the appearance of tourist hotels, water demand is such that deep fossil water is now being extracted (10,000 years old, and it tastes it), and this will eventually run out.

There are also new, efficient date palm plantations appearing in the region, which, with less dense planting, modern cultivation methods, and heavy reliance on deep wells, achieve four times the yield. So although Tozeur has survived since antiquity and seems likely to remain relatively untouched by the modern world for a while yet, its time will eventually be up.

Are date palms worth growing by European palm enthusiasts? Young specimens may look a little unexciting, but I was very taken by the handsome blue cultivars spotted at the Gros Pin nursery in the south of France during the EPS/Fous 1994 summer jaunt. It is even possible that Phoenix dactylifera could be grown outdoors here if kept dry in winter. After all, in its natural habitat, the date palm almost certainly experiences lower minimum temperatures than any other species of Phoenix.

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