Know your palm – part one

The true date palm, Phoenix Dactylifera

I AM glad another Christmas is over and under my belt. Goodbye Santa, snowmen, mulled wine, tacky flashing lights, six vegetables, Queen’s speech, chocolate liqueurs, heck being sociable even … If I can’t eat it, drink it, wear it (with style) or read it, please don’t waste your money on me. What better reason then to head south to Morocco on Boxing Day to see a few palms. Not just any palms, but one of my favourites from the Phoenix family – the good old date palm Phoenix Dactylifera.

In the wild, it is said to have originated around the Persian Gulf and is cultivated for its edible dates from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. In Europe, its history is fascinating … Following the successful invasion by the Moors in the first millennium, the date palm was introduced to cultivation in Europe. Elche, a couple of hundred kilometres below Barcelona, like Seville, sits in a land depression which has a relatively hot climate, so the date palm was planted densely around the edges of everybody’s land to provide shade for growing foodstuffs. In the Algarve, we had valados (dry stone walls) around the perimeters, to get rid of some of the rock and enable the growing of vegetables. In Elche, it was date palms to get rid of the sunshine!

The area was colonised for hundreds of years, stretching into the second millennium. When the Moors were finally evicted (horizontally, one presumes …), the Spanish started chopping down these ancient palms in order to forget about their former masters as quickly as possible.

Arriving in Elche with my father (the late Garth Merelie – former The Resident gardening scribe) to attend our annual Palm Nut Conference, we were joined by 60 fellow palm enthusiasts from Italy, Australia and the US – serious things palms, you know! We were baffled by the apparent lack of interest in dealing with them. Our host, Sr. Luís from Jardim Botânico Huerta de la Cura (a magnificent botanical palm garden), explained that the Spanish government had passed legislation to prohibit anyone from removing a date palm. Palms were declared a part of the national heritage and of benefit to the people for their historical value and economic uses.

Today, the outcome is very notable and quite sad. One walks down every street in Elche and around 30 per cent of the tall magnificent palms are dead. If there was ever a plant version of the elephants’ graveyard, this was it.

The future of the date palm at Elche is now threatened because today’s consumer society has led to a cessation of work on the land. Youngsters now work in the massive shoe industry there. The thousands of plots once home to date palms now lie empty and weed strewn. Once centres of vegetable production, they are now slowly becoming extinct. Since these palms only live for about 200 years, the ancient date palm may disappear from Elche in only three more generations.

The economic value of a palm that cannot be removed is very little. In Elche, because of a cool winter, date yield is much lower than that of Africa and Saudi Arabia. Owners bind their leaves and cover them with a black plastic bag to force their growth without light. This emerges without chlorophyll in the form of white leaves, which are marketed at Easter time to be woven into crosses for Easter parades. The owner of these palms receives a lowly 25 euros. The effect of such drastic cultivation of the palms is traumatic. Many of the ancient palms do not survive the treatment. When they die, the people simply shrug their shoulders.

The palms can also be blighted by red scale infestation, caused by infection from palm trees brought in from Egypt. In Egypt, no such laws apply regarding the removal of palm trees and they are often exported to Spain and then brought to Portugal. Spare a little thought for the dead ones you often see on these new council roundabouts. They start as a healthy ancient palm growing on the Nile and, after as many as four re-plantings, end up close to death for sale in the Algarve. Egyptian date palms are easy to spot – the pattern on their trunk is hard and has no bark, a little like a camel’s foot.

Old nursery-grown versions from established Spanish nurseries have short criss-cross old leaves, are much safer and, horticulturally speaking, a safer buy. These have been grown from seed, like the examples for sale at QM Garden Centre.

This palm is an absolute gem for your garden. It will withstand temperatures of minus six Celsius up to 40 degrees Celsius or more. It is remarkably tolerant of any soil including alkali and saline soils (pay attention, you coastal readers). We plant the date palm with a little manure and slightly above ground level to ensure good drainage. Most plants will extend their roots within two months if the ground is kept moist and will become very drought-resistant after two years of regular watering.

They can be planted any time of the year. In Tunisia, they plant in April or May to take advantage of the coming onslaught of hot weather. I like to plant in the winter to take advantage of the rain!

From a landscaping perspective, the Phoenix Dactylifera is a real signature plant. Not really harmful with its roots, but I would advise it to be planted further away from your villa, so you get a view of the light streaming through its semi open crown. Plant it on the highest point of your rockery or dig out all those sad old Lantanas and replace them with this palm and a few rocks around it to create a point of interest. Let your garden tell a story!  Remove plants or trees that have passed their sell-by-date, like old Acacias or dirty old pines, and plant something that will outlast your house’s current owner!

Dates are widely acknowledged as a healing food to reduce bad blood cells and lower blood pressure. There are about 20 commercial varieties of dates, Medjool and Zahdi being two of the more commercially produced ones. Saudi Arabia tops the production list at around half a million tonnes of dates per year, with over 11 million trees. In Ghana, they make an alcoholic beverage by tapping the sap out of the stem, while in Algeria, they say the tannin from the dates will counteract alcoholic intoxication!

Readers are reminded that the date palm, Phoenix Dactylifera, and a lot of others to be featured in the next of this series of articles, are available from QM Garden Centre in Sta Bárbara de Nêxe, Faro. Telephone 289 999 613. Stuart is available to advise or quote on landscaping projects of all sizes and would encourage readers to ring him on his mobile phone 917 814 261 – provided he isn’t collecting palm seeds in the deepest Sahara.