In the oases of Saudi Arabia, the date palm trees stand tall with their branches outstretched towards heaven and their roots anchored deep into the earth.These dense green groves have been a treasured part of the Saudi landscape for generations, both for their beauty and their utility. Since ancient times, the date palm has been a source of food for the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, and its branches have granted him shade from the strong desert sun. The palm fronds have thatched the roof of his hut and provided the baskets in which he has gathered the savory and nutritious fruit that grows abundantly from this tree.

In the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), many passages make mention of the importance of the date palm. In the Qur'an, it is referred to 29 times and is called "a blessed tree." When the Prophet built his mosque in Madinah, the pillars were constructed from the trunks of palm trees and the roof was woven from palm fronds.

Saudi women have long chosen to eat dates when they are pregnant or nursing in order to make sure they are receiving adequate vitamins and to boost their energy. In the Qur'an, in sura (chapter) 19, verses 23-25, during the birth of Jesus, Mary is guided to the palm tree to eat the dates to lessen the pains of childbirth: "But (a voice ) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; and shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: it will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee."

During Ramadan, the annual month of fasting for Muslims, the daily fast is broken with a few dates and then a few sips of water. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a four-day long feast, called Eid Al-Fitr, during which a popular treat is small cookies with a date filling called ma'mul.

The date palm is especially important to Saudis, not only for its myriad uses, but as a national symbol. After the modern Kingdom was founded in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, the date palm was incorporated in its national emblem, representing vitality and growth.

The date groves of Saudi Arabia produce more than 400 varieties of dates, two of which are pictured (inset, facing page, and above). Most of the picking operations are now done mechanically, although some farms still prefer manual harvesting (top).

It comes as no surprise then, that the date continues to be an integral part of Saudi culture. When a Saudi host offers a guest coffee, a plate of dates is always on hand to sweeten it. Low in fat, cholesterol free, high in carbohydrates, fiber, potassium and vitamins, dates stay fresh for several weeks when properly stored. They are a nutritious staple of the Saudi diet and an excellent source of energy for the health conscious.

Before oil became Saudi Arabia's primary industry, date farming was a prevalent part of the national economy. However, during the early 1970s, date cultivation in the Kingdom became stagnant due to a lack of labor, poor technology and disappointing harvests. With the encouragement and assistance of the Saudi government, the date industry was back on track by the early 1980s. Today, the Kingdom is the world's second largest producer of dates, supplying 17.6 percent of the world market. After wheat, dates are the second biggest sector of the nation's agricultural economy, with an annual production in 1994 of 568,000 tons. While a significant portion of the dates are consumed within the Kingdom, many are exported to outside markets. Through the United Nation's World Food Program, Saudi Arabia also donates a notable amount of its harvest to areas of the world suffering from food shortages.

The date farms of Saudi Arabia contain 14 million palm trees. They grow primarily in the world's largest oasis, Al-Hasa, in the Eastern Province. Al-Hasa's famous water springs and extensive irrigation system make it an ideal area for the production of dates. As far back as 4000 B.C., there is evidence pointing to date cultivation in what is now the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Other regions of the Kingdom known for their date palm groves are Qatif, Qasim, Madinah and Bishah.

The groves of Al-Hasa (top) form one of the largest date producing regions in the world. Saudi producers now package (above) and ship dates around the globe.

There are an enormous number of varieties of dates grown throughout the Kingdom. Grown by region, the most popular are the khalas, ruzeiz, kheneizy and bukeira in the Eastern Province; nebut seif, khudairi, sefri, barhi, sukkari and sullaj in the central region and Qasim; and anbara, agwa, berni, hilwa, holaya, safawi, shalabi and sukkaret in the west. Each variety is popular for a different quality and has its connoisseurs.

As the largest date producing region in the Kingdom, it is appropriate that Al-Hasa is the home to one of the world's leading facilities dedicated to date palm research. Established in 1982, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water and King Faisal University, the Date Palm Research Center conducts field and applied laboratory research to deal with problems that hinder date palm plantation, production, processing and marketing. The Center's experts train farmers in new and better methods of cultivation so they will turn out larger and higher quality date crops. Its staff also conducts research for the development of new and stronger strains more tolerant to disease and drought.

During the last 14 years, the Center has hosted three symposiums on the date palm, which have attracted scientists, scholars and farmers from around the world in order to exchange ideas, share knowledge and improve production. The Date Palm Center is a member of the Arab National Committee for Date Palms, which is part of the Arab Union for Food Industry, a section of the Arab League.

The scientists at the Research Center have made remarkable advances in the technologies of cultivating superior date palms. Traditionally, new trees were grown from the pits of dates or off-shoots from the tree. Today, the scientists have devised a method for growing trees from tiny pieces of the heart of the palm which are cultured in the laboratory. From one tree, virtually an entire grove can be grown. The researchers have also dealt with the immediate problems of farmers; in one case, irrigation canals were blocked by unusually dense algae. This obstructed the steady flow of water to the trees, putting their harvests in jeopardy. The scientists introduced fish in the irrigation ditches, and these ate the algae, maintaining it at manageable levels and restoring the flow of water to the groves.

The palm tree is considered to be one of the most adaptable trees in the world. It requires watering only once every two weeks and is able to withstand the dry, hot days and cold nights of the harsh desert climate. Each tree yields at least 1,000 pounds of fruit a year. The trees are planted in uniform rows and grow to be 40 to 100 feet tall. The date palm begins producing fruit when it is about seven years old and sustains abundant yields on average for 75 years, although the tree itself may live to be 150 years old.

Only female date palms bear fruit, so for commercial purposes farmers plant predominantly female trees. However, male trees that produce plentiful pollen are very precious, as the quality of the male pollen influences the size of the fruit and the rate at which it ripens. The female plant is pollinated by artificial means. The traditional method involves cutting several pollen clusters from the male tree and inverting them among clusters of female flowers. While for centuries this practice was performed by hand, today there are machines which have made the process quicker and easier.

Approximately one month after pollination, small green fruits begin to appear on the female trees. As they grow during the summer months, the intense heat withdraws the moisture and some of the sugar from them. As the dates ripen, they go from green to either bright yellow or dark red in color (depending on variety) and finally a dark brown at harvest time. While different varieties of dates vary somewhat in their growing seasons, the primary date season in Saudi Arabia runs from March, when the green buds first appear, to the middle of October, when the mature fruits are ready for harvesting.

Saudi Arabia's 14 million palm trees produce more than half a million tons of dates annually. A large portion is sent as emergency food aid to victims of natural and manmade disasters worldwide.

When the fruits are harvested, they go to the processing plants where they are stored in a cool, dry place. Saudi Arabia has 42 plants for the processing and packaging of dates, the largest facility being in Al-Hasa. At the factories, the loose dates are cleaned and sorted by variety. Some are sent to be packaged as they are, and others will be pitted and stuffed with almonds, coated with sesame seeds or dipped in chocolate. Other dates are processed into date pastes, liquid sugar, candy, date toffee and date syrup. They are then shipped to supermarkets and confectioneries throughout the Kingdom for domestic consumption, as well as exported to foreign consumers.

Researchers continue to explore the many uses of the date palm - some 360 according to Arabian folklore. Although no part of the tree is wasted, scientists are continually looking for new ways to utilize them. For instance, damaged dates are ground into an additive for animal feed. Experiments show that the addition of just five percent of ground dates to the fodder increases the flow of milk in farm animals. Scientists have also explored using the ground date pits as fish food, charcoal and as fertilizer for the palm tree itself.

Studies are also being performed to determine the possible medicinal benefits that might be derived from dates, such as an analgesic or as a supplement for people who suffer from hypokalemia, a disorder involving too low levels of potassium. In both cases, scientists believe dates could be beneficial.

The date palm has played a vital role in the lives of Saudis for centuries. With new farming techniques, improved quality of fruit and the development of new uses, the date palm is certain to continue to be a part of the Arabian landscape and culture for centuries to come.

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