Gardening: The great date

If you regularly eat dates but still worry about things, you are probably eating the wrong kind of dates.

dates 88 (photo credit: )
dates 88
(photo credit: )
If you regularly eat dates but still worry about things, you are probably eating the wrong kind of dates. There is a discussion in the Gemara in Masechet Ketubot (Daf 10b) about the salutary properties of dates. Aside from curing intestinal disorders and shrinking hemorrhoids, dates are praised by the rabbis for their ability to eliminate mahshava ra'ah, which Rashi equates with da'aga, or worry. The problem is that the dates harvested in Israel today are not of the same type grown when the discussions in the Gemara took place. The date palms grown in Israel today - which are varieties indigenous to Iraq, Algeria and Morocco - are the offspring of mother plants imported from California in the 1950s and '60s. It was long thought that the famed Judean date, together with its vaunted therapeutic properties - including palliation of malaria and cancer - had disappeared forever. At one time, myriad date palms flourished in a seemingly endless, undulating, seven-mile wide forest that filled the Jordan Valley from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea. But some time between this land's occupation by the Romans and the exit of the Crusaders, all the Judean date palms disappeared, whether through abandonment or outright destruction. Since ancient times, one of the strategies for subjugating people in this part of the world has been destruction of date trees, upon which both diet and economy depend. Only a few years ago, near Basra, Iraq - in order to punish date farmers who did not support his regime - Saddam Hussein systematically drained marshes whose water had been used to irrigate enormous date orchards, leading to the death of tens of thousands of trees. For centuries, there was no reason to think that Judean date palms, or their fruit, would ever be seen again. Last year, however, on Tu Bishvat, Elaine Solowey planted a 2,000-year-old date palm seed in her nursery at Kibbutz Ketura. The seed had been excavated at Masada in 1973 and, at the urging of Sarah Sallon, a medicinal plant expert, Solowey planted it. Incredibly, the seed sprouted and is now growing into a tree, requiring another four years or so to produce dates, as long as it is a female. Since date palms are either male or female and only the females give fruit, there is a 50 percent chance that the Masada tree will bear the longed-for Judean dates, from which more trees could be propagated until there are enough of the dates mentioned in Ketubot to eliminate every worry of every Jew on earth! According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the tranquilizing power of dates may be attributed to their high sugar content. Commenting on the assertion from Ketubot sited above, Steinsaltz notes that "eating a large quantity of concentrated (date) sugar raises the level of sugar in the blood, causing a feeling of drowsiness and a desire to sleep, similar to the feeling after drinking alcohol. For this reason the Sages said that a person who has eaten dates should not issue legal decisions." It is appropriate that a place named Ketura should have been the site of the Judean date palm's rejuvenation. Ketura, according to Rashi, is another name for Hagar, mother of seven sons of Abraham. When Sarah could not give birth, she suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar, her maidservant. First Hagar gave birth to Yishmael and later on, as Ketura, to six other boys. Fifty years elapsed between the birth of Yishmael and the death of Sarah, so Ketura had to have been in her 60s, at least, when Abraham resumed relations with her and she began having children again. The lasting vitality of Hagar/Ketura resonates in the seedling now growing at the kibbutz that bears her name. Although Solowey performed several special treatments on the Masada seed prior to germinating it, date palm seeds, in general, do not require special attention in order to sprout. Seeds from fresh dates are easier to sprout than those from dried ones, but both types are likely to germinate. Soak the seeds in water for 72 hours, changing the water once a day. Then dunk some peat moss in water to the point of saturation, mingle your date seeds within its fibers, and place moss and seeds inside a sealed plastic bag. Within two to four weeks, most of the seeds will have sprouted, at which point they can be removed from the bag and planted in regular potting soil. Simply soaking the seeds in water prior to planting will also lead to positive results, except that germination will be slower. Four species of date palms are commonly seen. The date palm grown for its edible crop (Phoenix dactylifera) is usually not planted for ornamentation on account of the fruit, which can create a significant mess when, over-ripe and unpicked, it falls and splatters. The Canary Island date (Phoenix canariensis) is a stout, towering tree used in colonnades, installed in a row on either side of long entryways or approaches to palaces, hotel resorts, or other signature destinations. The Senegal date (Phoenix reclinata) is a tall, multi-trunked beauty that evokes remote, white-sand islands and shipwrecked castaways. The pygmy date (Phoenix roebelinii) is the most versatile of the group. Reaching a mature height of only eight to 10 feet, it can be grown outdoors either in sun or part shade, in the ground or in pots. As an indoor plant, it requires bright ambient light, but suffers from exposure to intense direct sun. Yehoshua Siskin welcomes gardening questions from readers and will answer each one, whether by e-mail or in this column. 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