Candy Of the Desert

Widad Aljuhani has returned from her extensive field collecting trip in Saudi Arabia and reports back…

Dates: Food For Poor ……. Candy For Rich  (Poem)

FAO Date production fihures for 2011

© FAO, 2011 http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx accessed 23 Nov 2013

Date palm is one the most important crops in the Middle East, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer, according to FAO statistics 2012. There are about 450 date cultivars in Saudi Arabia, with more than 23 million palm trees; each region is famous for certain varieties. Saudi dates are characterised by a quality unprecedented in other producer countries. For instance; ‘Khalas’ is the most famous cultivar in the eastern region of Al-Hasa, the largest date palm oasis in the world while ‘Sukkari’ is the best cultivar found in the Gassim region,  the central region where the largest date palm farm in the world, Al-Rajhi’s farm, According to Guinness, 2008, the  ‘Ajwa’ cultivar, grown in the Al-Medina region, represents the most important date cultivar in the western region, and is one of the oldest varieties, found there from the 14th century or before.

Young date palms forming a new plantation

Young date palms forming a new plantation

Our plan was to collect date samples, during the period 2012-2013, to identify the cultivars grown in Saudi Arabia, using the modern, morphological molecular techniques. Cultivars were collected from inside and outside their regions of origin in order to detect any kind of confusion in their names. Travel between these regions, in a country as sprawling as Saudi Arabia, with wide distances between areas, and sometimes harsh weather conditions, was very challenging. To facilitate the collection, photographing and transportation of samples, trips were organized in stages, to include the important regions. The first trip, for leaves collection, was from November to January, when the heat of the sun was moderate. The second trip was made in the flowering season during February- March. Two of our trips were in the summer season, for fruit collection, in the period of June to September.

Travel through the oases and deserts is a risky task due to the risk of sudden sandstorms

Travel through the oases and deserts is a risky task due to the risk of sudden sandstorms

Travel through these oases requires much caution, since it is likely to face real risks. Levels of hazards may be high; such as sunstroke, sand storms, and floods in the rainy season, or downfall from high palm trees during sample collection. It is not surprising to encounter some poisonous insects and reptiles, which are endemic on farms, such as scorpions or snakes. Whoever chooses to make this kind of trip must be acutely aware of these risks, and know how to deal with them. Therefore, it is important to listen to weather reports, and any instructions from competent authorities. Also, it is prudent to ask for help from people who have  experience of climbing palms, following such advice as always wearing leather shoes .

In the heavy rains of spring season, the desert may collapse, in some areas because of pools of rain water, it becomes very dangerous to move.. Local authorities close some of the roads leading to valleys and oases. In this case, it is necessary to postpone the trip, to ensure participant safety, and reschedule it at an alternative time; as happened with us in April 2013.  On the other hand, a local guide,as well as a car with a GPS system, are invaluable to avoid the likelihood of getting lost in the desert. There are  many official bodies that can  provide assistance/guidance during these trips, and facilitate access to the previously mentioned varieties;  These include: the Ministry of Agriculture, agricultural colleges and research centres. Also, owners of local farms are usually willing collaborators, proud to talk about their cultivars. All thanks and appreciation to these authorities, officials, and farms owners for their cooperation, and efforts to ensure the success of these trips.

Access to young leaves at the top of a tall date palm can be a difficult job

Access to young leaves at the top of a tall date palm can be a difficult job

Palm leaves are clustered at the top of the tree, in the form of a crown; the youngest leaves are placed near the trunk apex. Access to these leaves is a very difficult job, especially, if the height of the tree is from 5 to 6 m, or more. In addition, there are very sharp spines at the base of the leaf. So, great care must be taken during collection. In addition,,wearing gloves to protect hands from sharp thorns when dealing with the samples is imperative. A first-aid bag must be carried at all times, to be used in the event of injuries and wounds. Farmers  remove some of these spines to facilitate agricultural transactions.

After getting the leaves, we faced another difficult task, in terms of dealing with these large samples. So, leaf measurements should be taken directly in the field, then divided it into 3 parts, to facilitate the transfer and study process. When leaves are split,, they must be numbered, connecting parts of of each cultivar together. When collecting many varieties, a large vehicle is needed to transport these samples.

WA10

The climber reaches the tree canopy

Dates being gathered.

Dates being gathered.

Gathering date palm fruit is a hard process, exacerbated by the harsh conditions in the summer season, when the temperatures reach their maximum, ranging from 45 to 50° C, making the organization of trips at this time of year a very difficult process. To avoid serious sunstroke, we organized our travels through the early morning, between 6-10 am. It is better to wear light coloured and light weight clothing, to mitigate the impact of the sun’s heat. On large farms, the reaping of fruit was done with special equipments, making this task much easier. Modern technology has contributed to the development of this equipments, but, on small farms, they still used manual methods. Therefore, it is better to use those who have experience of climbing palm trees, such as farmers or workers in palm plantations, especially when dealing with high palms, of 5-6 m or more.

Fruit collection takes place in the ripening season, from June until the end of September. The fruits vary in their ripening times, between varieties. Early maturing fruits such as; ‘Gure’, and ‘Rabeaa,’ can be collected from the end of June while in August, the middle of the maturity session, fruits from cultivars such as ‘Khalas’, and ‘Sukkari’ can be collected. Still other varieties, for example, ‘Hilali’, mature late, at the end of September. Field trips were arranged over two seasons, in order to collect as many samples of different varieties as possible.

Fruits pass several stages until reaching maturity, ‘Bisr’(yellow or red), and becoming edible. Before  the ‘Bisr’  stage, all varieties have green fruit, there is no difference between them. During the ‘Bisar, ‘Rutab’ (red or yellow and half brown), and ‘Tamar'(brown), stages, fruits become different colours, depending on the type of cultivar, and become  edible in the ‘Rutab, and Tamar stages.

Young dates changing from green to golden

Young dates changing from green to golden

We noted that western varieties were slightly faster in maturing than the central and eastern cultivars. That might be a result of the difference in topical topography, or a variation in local temperatures.

Most varieties produced fruit of a wet type, which  needed to be dried in order  to keep them for a long time. This is done by drying at high temperatures, ranging from 50-55 ° C for between 24 to 48 hours, to be fully dry.

Young dates changing from golden to brown

Young dates changing from golden to brown

One of the most important events for those interested in palms, and worth visiting, is the Date Festival. It is held annually, during the harvest season, from mid-August until the end of September. Farmers can offer their products from different varieties, besides those traditionally manufactured  palms. The festivals are arranged in several regions, such as; Buraidah and Al-hasa, and achieve high profits, possibly up to $ 26 million, and numerous cultivars are shown, some of them reaching as much as ‘Sukkari deluxe’ $ 40 per kg. This festival feeds the local market, these dates can be used until the next season. Of course, the high temperatures in summer help in ripening fruits, and in the abundant production.

The date festival held during harvest season where farmers can offer the different varieties they grow

The date festival held during harvest season where farmers can offer the different varieties they grow

September 15th represents the International Day of the Date Palm. In Saudi Arabia, both officials and the public in all regions, celebrate through planting many date palm offshoots, to continue the life of these trees in this country, to continue to be a part of its culture, and a symbol of generosity .

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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