Potentially growing 70 to 120 feet tall, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) has a straight trunk that is 18 to 24 inches in diameter at maturity. Growing along rivers and streams, in desert oases or wherever underground moisture abounds, date palms provide warm arid climate regions with tasty fruits that yield both nutrition and sugary water. Grow date palms in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) winter hardiness zones 8 through 11, making sure the soil remains dry in the winter months.
The date palm seems to be native all across the arid lands from northern Africa all the way to India, though this may not be the case. Internationally renowned palm expert Paul Craft comments in "An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms" that the date palm likely first grew only in northern Africa along the Mediterranean to the Middle East.
Initial Spread of the Species
The date palm spread both westward and eastward from its original native range. The textbook "Economic Botany: Plants in Our World" mentions that by 4500 B.C. the palm was growing across all dry regions around the Mediterranean Sea, thanks to dissemination by wandering tribes. Archaeological evidence suggests it was growing in eastern Arabia in 4000 B.C., according to Purdue University. United Arab Emirates University says the palm was growing in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) by 3000 B.C. The date palm was a manipulated agricultural crop by 2300 B.C., as farmers knew to hang a male flowering branch in the canopy of a female date palm tree to encourage better pollination and increased date fruit production, according to "Economic Botany: Plants in Our World."
Introduction Across Europe
The Arabs introduced date palms into Spain during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, which began in the eighth century and continued until the 15th century. While the date palm was admired and then planted across southern Europe from Italy to Greece, the formation of the fruits was not guaranteed in these lands on the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea. The English help spread dates to parts of their empire, especially where climate and soils favored the palm's growth—mainly Australia and South Africa.
Date Palms in the New World
The Spanish brought date fruits (seeds) with them on trips to the New World. By 1769, when missionaries first entered the Baja California Peninsula, the palm had likely reached the North American continent's West Coast, according to Homer Aschmann of the University of California at Riverside. Date palms do not prosper in humid regions and thus did not grow widely across the tropical New World, since they rotted in the summer rainy season and also could not thrive in areas where winters were too cold and wet. The palm grows well in the drier parts of northern Argentina and southern Brazil. Even if the fruits seldom matured, the date palm was regarded as a stately shade "tree" for use in landscapes.
Modern Date Palm Varieties
Today there are thousands of varieties (cultivars) of date palms grown around the world. The number in 1924, when Paul Popenoe wrote his book "The Date Palm," was already at 1,500. According to "Economic Botany: Plants in Our World," Asia and Africa produce the largest amounts of date fruits annually. Leading nations in date fruit production include Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In North America, the third area of production, the palms are grown in the American Southwest, Mexico and Pacific coasts of Central American countries.