The Cultivation of Phoenix dactylifera in Modern Israel

By Reuven Zasler, Karmiel, Central Galilee, Israel
Chamaerops No. 50 - published online 31-01-2005

The edible date (or, at least, the honey derived from it is edible) is one of the seven traditional species native to the Land of Israel that are mentioned in the Bible, the others being wheat, barley, the fig, the pomegranate, the grape and the olive. Several Biblical and non-Biblical sources, historical and archaeological among others, have attested to the natural abundance of P. dactylifera in the historical Land of Israel; unfortunately, successions of invaders and their empires wiped out all traces of this beautiful and economically valuable palm, as well as most other species of trees, either through warfare or economic policy.

It wasn't until Jewish refugees from the diaspora arrived in Palestine over one hundred years ago that serious attention was given to the restoration of trees to a land in which they had once flourished. And restore they did, either through massive reforestation or local plantings to the point of obsession. Even today, the inhabitants of a large portion of historical Palestine, who are now called Israelis, still deem it a holy act to plant a tree in their ancient homeland; there is even a national religious holiday (Tu B'Shvat - the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat) dedicated solely to it.

Luckily, P. dactylifera was not excluded from this fanatic arboreal recreation. In the early 1900's, the settlers of the cooperative farms still located at the southern point of Lake Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee) first reintroduced this palm to what would become the State of Israel. Nowadays, with over 315,500 cultivated specimens (1.6 percent of the world total), Israel is among the world's top exporters of high quality dates and date products. Israel has numerous date plantations maintained within several cooperative settlements located along the Jordan Valley, stretching from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea, where summer temperatures often reach and even exceed 40 C.

The largest of these plantations was founded over seventy years ago at the Kinneret Cooperative Farm; it now produces dates from no less than nine varieties of P. dactylifera. The plantation factory's director, Mr. Neta Mor, referred me to Mr. Zvi Bernstein, a member of the Cooperative, as an expert on date palm horticulture who (at age 75) is currently a researcher at the Tzemah Experimental Station just south of Lake Kinneret. Mr. Bernstein, who published a comprehensive book on the date palm just last year, agreed to be interviewed at the Institute with considerable alacrity. The interview was conducted in Hebrew and was translated and edited by yours truly.

Reuven: How is the Station connected with date palm horticulture?
Zvi: The Station's Date Palm Division aims to increase the yield and quality of several varieties of dates.

Reuven: Is the Division, or anyone else, attempting to cultivate hybrids?
Zvi: No. This was undertaken several years ago in the U.S., but it ended in dismal failure. Among other difficulties, the waiting time for results was too long.

Reuven: Is there a conscious effort to increase the number of specimens under cultivation?
Zvi: Absolutely. Just a few years ago there were about 200,00 such specimens, whereas today there are well over 300,000.

Reuven: We have been speaking about cultivated specimens; I am assuming there are no wild specimens of P. dactylifera growing anywhere in Israel.
Zvi: That is technically incorrect. We have located small, innumerous groups of this palm, scattered throughout the northern Negev Desert. I have some seed samples here in the lab. (Produces a small vial containing about ten seeds that are similar to, but about half the size of, a cultivated Medjool seed - R.Z.)

Reuven: When P. dactylifera was reintroduced in Palestine, where did the seeds come from?
Zvi: An official of the Jewish Agency brought about 1,000 seeds back from Egypt in 1924 and distributed them amongst Kinneret, Degania Aleph and Degania Beyt (Neighbouring cooperative farms along Lake Kinneret - R.Z.)

Reuven: Are any of the palms from these seeds still bearing fruit?
Zvi: Only a few in the Jordan and Jizre'el Valleys.

Reuven: Which are the most common varieties of P. dactylifera now cultivated in Israel?
Zvi: The Medjool, originally from Morocco, accounts for two thirds of Israeli date cultivation; there is also the Hayani, very common in Egypt; the (Deglet) Noor, common in Tunisia and Algeria; and the Barhi, originally from Iraq.

Reuven: How did Israel acquire the Medjool seed?
Zvi: At the time that a terrible plague wiped out nearly the entire Medjool population in Morocco, the Americans located a still healthy specimen and replanted it in California. The offshoots were replanted in the Nevada desert. Every Medjool palm in existence in the whole world today is an offspring of these offshoots!

Reuven: Let's discuss the natural requirements of P. dactylifera.
Zvi: First of all, this palm requires the warm temperatures common to the Middle East and North Africa, where it flourishes natively. It also must receive a lot of direct sunshine.

Reuven: What about soil; anything special required?
Zvi: On the one hand, the type of soil prevalent on date plantations is called hamrah, which is a coarse, sandy, slightly reddish loam. On the other hand, the date palm will flourish in just about any kind of soil, very unlike other types of fruit trees, provided it receives the other environmental necessities.

Reuven: Which are...?
Zvi: Well, I've mentioned proper sunshine and temperature, so I am referring to water.

Reuven: How are cultivated date palms irrigated?
Zvi: The basic method consists of different types of flood irrigation, which may be accomplished with sprinklers, hoses or ditches. However, all Israeli date plantations are unique in their use of the drip system, which ensures the proper amount of water and fertilizer, while preventing expensive waste of water.

Reuven: Isn't fertilizer an important factor?
Zvi: Fertilizer restores to the soil what the plant extracts for its growing needs. Our fertilizers are designed to do just that, and are delivered through the irrigation system.

Reuven: My final question concerns the best method of date palm propagation.
Zvi: There are three known ways of propagating P. dactylifera. One method, of course, is by planting seeds. This is relatively time consuming and involves a high failure rate. The most prevalent method today is the planting of offshoots, which gives one a "head start" in the growth cycle and involves an already flourishing plant. However, the most promising method is propagation through tissue culture. This ensures uniform, healthy palms in large-scale cultivation.

There were, of course, other matters of interest which were discussed, but do not appear on these pages. On my way back home from the interview, I came across the Kinneret Cooperative Farm mentioned earlier, so I decided to locate the plantation manager for the purpose of receiving a guided tour. This proved to be fruitless (pun half intended), so I helped myself to an unguided, albeit fascinating, tour. I was able to view, and touch, the sandy hamrah and a few of the still hard, greenish-yellow unripe dates of the younger, shorter trees. I stood in awe amongst hundreds, nay thousands, of these majestic monuments of nature (and human cultivation), some only as high as my knee, others beckoning at the heavens, and each in its long row according to age. I was then ready to return home, to my wife, two cats and modest garden, in which two lovely specimens of P. dactylifera are prospering.


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