Forty years ago, when Bill Benson operated an East Valley produce farm, he had to be creative selling his dates.
"A lot of people who lived here knew about dates," Benson said. But they didn’t necessarily want to eat them.
So, Benson dipped them in chocolate.
Today no such strategy is needed at Arizona State University, which is selling seasonal, campus-grown Medjool dates in the main bookstore in Tempe for $12.50 per 2-pound box. The fruit will be available until it sells out in December.
"I get phone calls throughout the year for the dates," said Louisa Ballard, coordinator of ASU’s arboretum volunteers.
A DEEPLY ROOTED LEGACY
According to Ballard, the oldest date palms on campus go back to Arthur John Matthews (1900-1904), who was the seventh "principal" of the school that would become ASU. Matthews, a farm boy from back East, was reportedly horrified when he arrived at the "weedy, 20-acre campus," according to Tempe historian Dean Smith.
In his tenure as principal, Matthews planted 1,478 trees, some of them date palms. One of his legacies is "Palm Walk" on the main campus.
Back then, as now, the palms had be hand-pollinated to guarantee fruit production.
PALM FRUIT IS CARED FOR BY HAND
Benson, who volunteers at ASU, is familiar with the process from his own date palm days and tenure as curator of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum outside of Superior in the 1940s. The labor-intensive process includes harvesting pollen from the male plant and applying it to the female plant in the spring. Date palms are dioecious, meaning male and female reproductive organs are located on separate plants. In nature, the wind would serve as the pollination mechanism. But today, as economies are based on production, pollination is not left to the whims of nature.
When the fruit begins to form in the summer, it must be thinned to guarantee quality, Ballard said. Bags are placed around each branch to protect the sweet meat from the birds. "Birds seem to always know when the fruit is ready before the people do," Ballard said.
In August, the bags are untied and fruit checked. Harvest takes place in September or October, depending on the condition of the dates. The fruit is hand-cut at a staggered rate, as ripening does not occur uniformly.
"Dates are very soft and you have to be careful if you wash them because they dissolve," Benson said, noting that high sugar is the culprit.
SWEET AND NUTRITIOUS
Dates aren’t just sweet and delicious. They’re nutritional, too. According to Jeffrey Hampl, registered dietitian and associate professor of nutrition at ASU, a serving of 10 dates contains 541 milligrams of potassium. The minimum requirement is 2,000 milligrams per day. Potassium normalizes blood pressure, preventing excess fluid retention, conducting nerve impulses and improving physical performance.
"As a dried fruit, dates are ideal for anyone who needs to eat on the run," Hampl said. "A lot of people have a hard time eating the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. So dates add some fun and variety to the task."
Dates have historically been heralded for their medicinal qualities, too. The Arabs, for example, had 365 pharmaceutical and culinary uses for the fruit, according to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in her "History of Food." Particularly it was known for being good for colds. "The paste made of dates for chest complaints had no equal for a long time," Toussaint-Samat wrote.
DATES FROM AFAR
Cultivation of the date palm goes back more 7,000 years. In Arizona, its recent arrival can be traced to the arrival of pioneers following the Civil War. According to R.H. Hilgeman, pioneers planted date palms in settlements near Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma. Hilgeman created a history of date palms in the state in 1942 as head of the University of Arizona Experiment Station in Tempe. Developing a date industry become a major project of the station in 1889, with importations from Egypt, Algeria, Arabia and Baluchistan (Iraq).
Following World War II, demand was lessened by resumed sugar availability and agricultural displacement due to a growing population. Commercial production of the crop began to subside. Sixty-seven of the more than 300 different date varieties have been cultivated in the state over the years. The most prized continues to be the brown fruit from Morocco — the Medjool.