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UC Food Safety
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UC Food Safety

Ornamental landscape date palm: An overlooked urban fruit tree

Tens of thousands of mature date palm trees have been transplanted from fruit-producing orchards in the Coachella Valley into urban coastal Southern California landscapes. (D. R. Hodel).
From lemons to loquats, it's common to see fruit trees with an abundant, but unpicked, harvest. Urban fruit often goes to waste, whether on a neglected backyard tree or in a public setting. Under-utilized urban fruit trees have gotten some attention in the Los Angeles area in recent years, with projects like Fallen Fruit, a collective that maps fruit trees growing in public spaces, and Food Forward, a non-profit that harvests unwanted fruit and donates it to food banks.

One fruit, though, is not on the radar of foodies and foragers. Yet it's crunchy, sweet, flavorful, often seedless, and very common in Southern California landscapes. It's the fruit of the date palm, rarely thought of as a food source in our urban environment, more frequently viewed as a nuisance because dates fall off trees, where they create litter that must be cleaned up.

Palm trees produce abundant date fruits that fall into the landscape and become a nuisance. (D. R. Hodel).
Why do we have so much of this fruit? For the last 30 years, Southern California has seen the transplanting of tens of thousands of mature Phoenix dactylifera, the edible date, from fruit-producing orchards in the low-desert Coachella Valley into urban coastal Southern California to landscape homes, hotels and malls from Santa Barbara to San Diego. 

Unfortunately, coastal Southern California lacks the high sustained heat and aridity for proper fruit maturation and curing to produce traditional soft-ripe dates of good eating quality. The dates that fall from the trees have been unattractive to gather for sale and consumption, processes that could help to resolve the fruit litter problem in the landscape.

However, some varieties of dates can be eaten at a less than a mature state, traditionally called “khalal.” Fruit in the khalal stage have attained their maximum size, are typically yellow or red, have a sweet flavor, and are crunchy, somewhat like an apple. Several date varieties, like ‘Barhee,' are sometimes sold and eaten in the khalal stage. Fortunately, from a food standpoint (or unfortunately if you are a landscape manager), date fruits do mature to the khalal stage in coastal Southern California because high sustained heat and aridity are not required to attain this stage of development.

While ‘Barhee' is not too common as a landscape subject, another variety, ‘Zahidi,' is common and typically produces abundant fruits in coastal Southern California. These golden yellow fruits are conspicuous and showy in the khalal stage, are typically on the palm for several months from late fall to spring, and are really good to eat. Also, in many cases, these fruits are seedless! (Note to horticulture geeks: date palms are dioecious - separate male and female trees - and because nearly all edible date palms in the landscape are female, their flowers were pollinated by other species of landscape Phoenix. The resulting hybrid fruits are seedless, or pollination is not required for fruit to set and develop - parthenocarpy.)

Urban foragers looking for their next food adventure, or even a potential enterprise, might want to consider taking advantage of this otherwise nuisance and unwanted fruit. Khalal fruit can be gathered from the ground and cleaned. But it is best to collect them off the palm. Cutting an inflorescence (entire fruit stalk) and lowering it carefully to the ground would be ideal.

Khalal-stage fruits of the date variety ‘Zahidi’ are really good to eat: crunchy, sweet, and flavorful. Also, they are seedless (D. R. Hodel).
Khalal-stage fruits of the date variety ‘Zahidi’ are really good to eat: crunchy, sweet, and flavorful. Also, they are seedless (D. R. Hodel).

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 1:51 PM

Comments:

1.
What spots on back of plant leave

Posted by Peg Ordway on April 1, 2014 at 6:21 AM

2.
Is the Khalil stage of dates dated raw or do you have recipe suggestions?

Posted by Karen on April 14, 2014 at 10:30 AM

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