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Phoenix dactylifera L. (Botanical Garden inCatania. (Photo P. Pavone)

Phoenix dactylifera L.

This palm, well known since ancient times, was regarded by the Egyptians as being a fertility symbol, it was represented on coins and monuments by the Carthaginians and used as an ornament in triumph pageants by the Greeks and Romans. In the Christian tradition, its leaves have symbolised peace and reminded of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem.

Etymology - Its generic name is an ancient name, already quoted by Theophrastus, as the one by which the Greeks used to call plants belonging to this genus; it derives from phoenix = Phoenician, as the Phoenicians themselves were supposed to have spread these plants. Its specific name is composed by dactylus = date (from Greek dactylos) and fero = I bear, that is, date-bearing.

Botanical description - Imposing palm with a very slender trunk, up to 30 m tall, conspicuously covered with the remains of sheaths from fallen leaves. Its leaves, clustered together in a maximum number of 20-30 and forming a loose crownshaft, are pinnate, up to 6 m long, upper leaves are ascending, basal leaves are recurved, the segments are coriaceous, linear, rigid and sharp pointed, blue-green in colour.

Its flowers, unisexual on dioecious plants, are small, whitish, fragrant, clustered in axillary spadices up to 120 cm long markedly bent downwards by their fruit weight. These fruits, commonly known as dates, are oblong berries, dark-orange when ripe, up to 50 cm long in the cultivated varieties, their flesh is sacchariferous, it contains one woody seed.

Area of origin and cultural areas - The date palm, native to North Africa has been extensively cultivated here as well as in Arabia and as far as the Persian Gulf, where it features as the characteristic vegetation of oases. Moreover it is grown over the Canary Islands, in the northern Mediterranean and in the south of the United States.

Cultivation - It is a plant sensitive to the cold, it thrives on any kinds of soil, provided that they are fertile and well drained; in mild climate regions, it is grown outdoors where it must be exposed to the sun; it is grown chiefly as an ornamental plant on account of its slender habit and foliage. In order for its fruits to come to a complete maturity, rather high temperatures (40C) and copious water amounts, these being sometimes provided by means of irrigation in production palms, are required.

It propagates by suckers or seeding in spring.

 Uses - Dates, due to their high sugar content, represent the basic, fundamental food for North Africa, Arabia and Persia's peoples, where hundreds of varieties are grown for commercial purposes.