Visitors to the Liwa Date Festival sample a variety of dates on the last day of this year’s event. Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The date palm, in Emirati culture, is more than just a fruit-producing tree. It is a part of the country's identity and heritage.

Interactive: Exquisite Date

There are currently over 44 million date palms in the UAE that can be grouped under 199 different varieties and together produce 76,000 tonnes of fruit every year, a date palm expert told Gulf News.

"Every year, we are seeing a steady rate of date production from farms within the UAE; farmers are increasingly turning to techniques and experts for advice that results in a higher quality of date, such as through cross pollination with new date palm tree varieties that are imported from around the region and world," said engineer Ahmad Al Marzouqi, authorised manager, University Palmtree.

To ensure a healthy yield, farmers have to take various factors into consideration, such as deciding on the appropriate time to move a male palm tree or when saplings are strong enough to be moved away from their parent tree.

"When a farmer decides to plant or move a palm tree, they have to make sure that this delicate procedure is done right. One of the main problems faced during this stage is how to preserve the roots of the date palm tree," he said.

Special bond

"On average 20 per cent if not more of a tree's root is lost in the transition period; to minimise this risk, farmers have to always make sure that the area around the roots is deep enough, so they can be moved safely," Al Marzouqi said.

Other challenges that are being faced within date palm farms include combating diseases and insects such as the red palm weevil, fruit borers and date palm stem borers. Another issue farmers face is the possibility of over- or under-watering of their trees.

"When a tree is over- or under-watered it causes it to weaken and even die; date palm tree experts are constantly speaking to farmers to highlight this issue and showcase new techniques that aim to reduce or even eliminate this problem," Al Marzouqi said.

Video: Dates and its health benefits

He also noted that these issues and concerns are slowly decreasing with every year because of the Emirati community's special relationship with date palm trees.

"Many farmers treat their trees as members of their own family because of our bond with the date palm trees, which have helped sustain us for many generations; for us, it's more than just a fruit-producing plant. It's an integral part of our heritage and identity," Al Marzouqi said.

In the past, dates were considered a main source of nutrition for Emiratis, whether consumed immediately or conserved and eaten months or even years afterwards. The most well-known varieties of Emirati dates include Dabbas, Khunaizi, Bu Ma'an, Khalas, Al Farad and Al Nekhba.

"Dabbas can last up to two to three years easily if stored in a cool environment, such as a refrigerator; in the past, because of the limited access to a constant food source like dates, previous generations would use various methods to store them; the most popular method, employed even to this day, is to dry them under the sun for a period of time before storing them," Al Marzouqi said.

Date Palm Tree Uses

Date palm trees were prized for their multiple uses, not just as a source for the date fruit. Their trunks have been used as both support for tents and as the framework for more elaborate dwellings, whose walls and floors were created using woven palm tree leaf strips. Roofs were created either by using woven leaves or by binding whole palm branches with ropes created by trimmed stalks from the trees.

Many traditional items can also be created using various elements of the date palm tree. One of the most common uses of the date palm leaves is the creation of mats, baskets and even fans. This is done by using palm leaf strips that are soaked in water to ensure flexibility during the crafting period. Once dried, the strips retain their shape for a long time.

Branches of palm trees have even been used as part of small fishing boats. This is done through first soaking the branches before tying them together using the rope created from date palm tree stalks. Afterwards, these stems are secured to wooden frames which are then combined into the boat form. Because the stems tend to absorb water, the boats can never be used for long distance traveling.

The trees and their fruit, the date, also are a source of various foodstuffs, such as syrup, which is extracted from the trunk of the date palm tree and coffee made from grinding its seeds or combining ground date seeds and ground coffee. The seeds have also been used to create soap and Kohl [eye liner].

Ancient roots

Date palm trees have a long and fertile history with humans, which is evident from findings such as the oldest discovered date seeds on Delma island in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Discovered in 1998, the oldest seed dates back to 5110 BC and the second oldest goes back to 4670 BC according to radiocarbon tests.

Because there was no evidence of cultivation of date palm trees in the region at that time, it is believed that the seeds came from traders. In fact, dates and other products created from the fruit and tree were traded widely in the ancient world, even as the date palm tree was being cultivated in countries ranging from the Indus Valley (now Pakistan) to Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the Nile Valley, southern Persia, Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa.

The date palm trees and their fruit were revered in these ancient cultures; however, it gained the highest regard and recognition within Arab Islamic culture.

Dates were Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) favourite fruit and this is evident in the Quran, which mentions them 26 times, referring to them as ‘God's Bounty'. Also, according to Islamic tradition, a date tree was said to be the ‘Tree of Life' in the Garden of Eden and to have sheltered (in another place) and provided a rich food source for Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus.

— Emirates Natural History Group