The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is the most characteristic tree of the Sahara, and the most important to the economy. It is a dioecious plant, given the fact that there are female plants that only produce pistilliferous (female) flowers, and male plants, that only produce stameniferous (male) flowers.
In order for the female plant to bear fruit it has to be pollinated by the male flowers, which can either occur naturally by wind or insects or be carried out artificially, by hand. On the desert oases pollination is carried out wholly by hand to be certain of the harvest and because numbers of female plants greatly outnumber the males. Using just one male palm very high numbers of female plants can be pollinated and artificial pollination usually takes place from March to mid-May. A delicate manual operation is carried out, applying 2-3 male flowers to every règime (inflorescence) of female flowers.
The date palm lives a long time (it can reach 150-200 years of age), and starts to bear fruit when it reaches 4-6 years old. It can grow to a great height (over 20 metres) and every part of the tree gets used:
- The trunk of the palm is used as fuel and also in building as beams in the house construction.
- The leaves, on stems longer than 2 metres, are put to innumerable uses, mainly in construction of windbreaks and in woven form in the manufacture of matting. Every year the bottom ring of leaves dies off naturally, and is cut away. The number of such rings shows accurately the age of the palm.
- The shoots that can be detached from the base of the mother plant, are the suckers used in the next planting.
- The date is the fruit of the Phoenix dactylifera; and there are lots of different varieties. A sugary and highly-nutritious food, it is consumed both fresh and dried. Each palm produces 80-150 kg of dates a year.
- The beard of the palm that is found at the base of every leaf, when crushed and moistened is used as fibre in rope making.
From "SAHARA" - Rocco Ravà - Ed. CLUP