A Date to Remember

(page 2)

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.

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