Romance of the Date

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Special to the Times

Of all the fruits grown in California, dates are surely the most exotic. Ranks of stately palms shimmer on the desert horizon like a mirage out of the Arabian Nights, shrouded in the romance of their ancient origins and arcane lore. Even more mysterious are their peculiar methods of reproduction and the improbable trade that both sustains and threatens them.

The extreme environment of date farming seems to draw eccentrics. Rosalind Milliken, who grows luscious Medjools in Bermuda Dunes with her husband, Brad, likes to say: “Anybody who gets into dates has got to be crazy. Who would choose to work in tall trees and ferocious heat?”

Date palms, however, like their “heads in the fire and feet in the water,” as an old Arab saying goes. To ripen commercial crops they require a hot summer with little rainfall and low humidity, but plentiful water for irrigation. Such are the conditions in the Coachella Valley, stretching from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, where 80% of the state’s 4,850 producing acres of dates are located.


Early settlers noted the area’s similarity to deserts of the Middle East, where dates have been a staple food since prehistoric times. They planted seeds from imported dates, but these mostly bore fruits inferior to those of the parent trees; only after plant explorers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private nurseries brought back offshoots of superior varieties from the Middle East, in 1900 and over the next two decades, did commercial cultivation begin.

As so often happened in the history of California agriculture, real estate promoters fueled the great date boom of 1910 to 1920, enticing settlers to buy plots of Southern Pacific Railroad lands. “Best Date Lands in the World,” trumpeted a 1912 pamphlet. “Someone is going to make a lot of money during the next few years out of dates. Why not secure your share?”

Few of these pioneers got rich: Shoots cost as much as $8 each and took five years to bear fruit. But the new industry took hold, focused on the Deglet Noor variety, originally from Algerian and Tunisian oases.

Several families from this heroic age still grow dates today. As his harvest began a few weeks ago near the town of Coachella, David Da Vall, wearing two pairs of sunglasses to protect his eyes from the glare, unloaded wooden lugs of Honey dates in the 115-degree heat and carted them into the cooler of his packing shed, perspiration streaming down his face and neck.

“This is nothing,” he said. “Ten years ago I recorded 127 degrees. It was like sticking your head in a hot oven.”

He then told how his great-great-uncle Everett Da Vall rode freight trains from his native Pennsylvania to California in 1906. After seven years of labor he bought 320 acres in what is today Rancho Mirage, but he couldn’t afford date shoots from a nursery, so he planted 200 seeds provided by the government and hoped for the best. Everett found three of the seedlings worth propagating, the soft, creamy Honey, the caramel-like Empress and TR (named for its position in the third row), a long amber-yellow date so exquisitely tender it only keeps for a few weeks.


The family sold its original property to developers in 1972, but six months later bought new land 15 miles to the southeast in Coachella, south of Indio. “We realized we’d made a mistake,” says David Da Vall. “Dates are in our blood.”

He now farms 37 acres, specializing in soft, moist, freshly harvested dates, which he sells at farmers markets.

The Rarest Dates

Few Americans have ever tasted such dates of the highest quality, and even fewer realize the great diversity of date varieties and stages of maturity, from fresh to fully dried. Date growers use the Arabic terms for the four main stages: Kimri refers to young, green fruits. By the khalal stage dates have reached full size and changed to the characteristic color for each variety, which may be yellow, red or pink.

Middle Easterners and connoisseurs most esteem the third stage, soft, golden amber rutab dates, which have a delicate flavor and a tinge of acidity to complement their sweetness. More than 99% of the dates grown in the United States, however, are sold at the tamar stage, when they have dried to a fairly firm consistency, and are brown, wrinkled and less perishable.

Freshness and texture are key for rutab dates, so Da Vall picks his palms three times as the fruits ripen. His trees are no more than 25 feet tall, but for many farmers with older orchards (or date gardens, as they’re usually called), the cost and trouble of more than one harvest are prohibitive. Unlike most fruit trees, which can be pruned to manageable heights, a date palm dies if its terminal bud is cut, so it never stops growing, at the rate of about a foot a year.

In the course of a year Da Vall’s workers scale each palm 26 times, including trips to slice the nasty spines from year-old leaves, harvest pollen, hand-pollinate the date flowers, thin the bunches, prune excess leaves, tie down the fruit stalks to supporting leaves, cover the bunches to protect them from rain and pests and, finally, harvest the crop. The palmeros performing these arduous tasks work their own blocks of palms and are highly skilled, valued employees.


A Palmero Makes Good

One farmers market vendor, Enrique Bautista, worked as a palmero and foreman for 20 years until the owner retired and sold him the farm, in Mecca, just north of the Salton Sea. On a bright March afternoon, he demonstrated the age-old techniques of hand pollination, necessary for commercial production because date palms bear male and female flowers on separate palms.

He showed off the date “stud shed” where male inflorescences--dull white flowers clustered on strands forming large, feathery bunches--were hanging to dry. He cut a few strands, rubbed them over a mesh screen and collected the fragrant pollen into a jar.

Meanwhile, a palmero , Juan Romero, worked high in a Zahidi tree, tying three strands of male flowers into the center of the long, greenish-yellow female flower clusters. On each of the palm’s dozen clusters, he also sprayed a puff of pollen from a duster, then tied on a paper bag. Descending the 30-foot, V-shaped ladder, Romero slid down the last 10 feet with his feet on the sides, grinning and whooping.

Six months after pollination, dates reach the khalal stage, when they are hard, crunchy and fairly sweet. Most varieties grown in America are too astringent to be palatable fresh, except for the Barhi, a nearly round, buff-colored date that has long been popular with Middle Easterners and has recently become more available at mainstream markets.

On a September evening in the aptly named community of Thermal, Robert Lower, a grower renowned for the quality of his Barhis, emerged from his manufactured housing unit into a fenced courtyard rimmed with rusting equipment and piles of bric-a-brac. His hands still white from finishing a surfboard, he drove a beat-up truck into his jungle-like Flying Disc Ranch date garden to harvest Barhis.

Since the trees were still young and short, picking was easy. Lower opened up a card table, bent down a heavily laden fruit stalk, snipped off the strands and filled up a carton. Lower said he found the not-inconsiderable astringency of Barhis at that stage to be “cleansing.” For most Americans, though, khalal dates are an acquired taste.

The real point of harvesting Barhis at this stage is that they are firm enough to be shipped, but after a day in the sun (or, with a bit of luck, a few days in a warm spot in the kitchen) they ripen, tip first, into supremely luscious rutab dates.

‘Ooeys, Gooeys and Chewys’

Nothing beats a Barhi ripened on the tree, however. A few dates in Lower’s orchard were already so soft that their seeds stayed on the stalk and their skins slipped off, leaving translucent golden orbs that tasted like sugary clouds.


Lower likes to call the three edibles stages of Barhi--crunchy, astringent khalal , moist rutab and dry tamar --”ooeys, gooeys and chewys.” In moments of grouchiness--for which he’s famous at farmers markets, as well as for his passionately voiced opinions about organic growing practices--he calls the gooey rutabs “wretched excess.” But a faint smile crosses his lips, and it’s clear that he really loves them.

While the niche for Barhi is expanding, the large, meaty Medjool has taken over much of the high-end and gift markets. It currently represents one quarter of California’s production and would probably have an even larger share, but it got a late start here. During the first wave of importations the Bayoud fungal disease had destroyed most of the Medjool palms in Morocco, the variety’s homeland.

In 1927, after years of searching, Walter Swingle of the USDA succeeded in finding healthy Medjool palms in the remote Saharan oasis of Bou Denib. He brought back 11 offshoots and placed them in quarantine; the nine that survived took a long time to reproduce in commercial quantities--each mother palm generates only 10 to 15 shoots in its lifetime.

Birth of the Bard

Starting in 1942, growers planted Medjools in the Bard Valley, at the extreme southeastern corner of California. Early settlers had marginal results growing other varieties of dates in the area. Although the Bard Valley gets about the same amount of rainfall as the Coachella Valley, much of it falls in summer rather than winter, and the Deglet Noor variety, the California date industry’s longtime mainstay, tends to crack and rot in rain or high humidity; it also does poorly in heavy soil. The Medjool, on the other hand, tolerates such conditions and especially flourishes in the rich brown alluvial soil of the Bard Valley.

Across the Colorado River from Yuma, the Bard Valley is three to four miles wide, bounded by the river, mountains and Indian reservations. The area produces much of the nation’s winter vegetables and draws large numbers of “snowbirds,” winter visitors.

On a September morning at Royal Medjool Date Gardens, thousands of trays of dates were spread out in the sun to dry, a practice rarely seen in Coachella.


“We have better control over quality if we dry them ourselves,” said Ron Hill, the foreman.

To make picking more efficient in the 40-foot trees, palmeros worked from horseshoe-shaped metal platforms elevated by hydraulic lifts. Untying the white polyester bags that protected the bunches, each worker shook loose the ripe dates, gently collected them in a sauce-shaped mesh basket and lowered it to the ground.

Bard date boxes boast, “Unquestionably the Best,” and the district’s Medjool plantings have expanded greatly in recent years to some 1,900 acres, including 700 acres of young trees across the river on Arizona’s Yuma Mesa. In truth, farming practices and care during harvest affect fruit quality more than the differences in growing areas, but, everything else being equal, Jim Freimuth of Oasis Date Gardens, who grows Medjools both in Thermal and Bard, gives a slight edge to the Bard dates.

The better Medjool farmers harvest at least three times a season, but growers of Deglet Noor, the state’s leading variety, mostly let the dates dry on the trees and pick them in one pass. Efficiency rules the harvest, which lasts from late September to December.

Digging Deglets

On a freezing morning last November at Hadley Date Gardens in Thermal, a dozen palmeros warmed their hands around a fire in a 300-acre block of ancient, 70-foot-tall Deglet trees. As the sun peeped over the Chocolate Mountains and dyed the palms flaming orange, the workers split into two-man crews.

One carefully propped a 56-foot extension ladder against a palm, climbed to the top, then mounted another ladder affixed to the top of the trunk. At the crown he fastened a safety harness and began ripping off the protective paper cones, which fluttered down amid a hail of loose dates. Next he hacked off a 25-pound bunch with a machete and lowered it by rope to the ground. His partner swung the bunch over to a large wooden bin, then shook and flailed it until the dried, hard dates flew off into the bin. After a few trees, the men exchanged roles.


At the Hadley packing shed, workers stacked plastic trays of wizened Deglets in a hydration chamber for treatment at 146 degrees and 100% humidity, after which they emerged plump and glossy. In this way, Hadley stores dried dates for months and hydrates them as needed.

(California growers claimed to have devised this process, but they were not the first to hydrate dates: A 14th-century Arabic cookbook written in Egypt gives instructions for moistening dates out of season by soaking them in warm water and leaving them inside a hollowed-out watermelon. “No one will doubt they are fresh dates,” it promises.)

Decades ago, when labor cost less and trees were lower, growers harvested Deglets multiple times in search of perfect specimens called “naturals,” translucent golden dates with a lighter, more delicate flavor than the ordinary kind. (These were the source of the name Deglet Noor, which means “Date of Light.”) Picked ripe but not overdried, naturals didn’t require hydration. Even the best orchards produced only a small percentage of naturals, but aficionados valued them as the best eating dates that were reasonably easy to handle.

Old-fashioned naturals from multiple harvests are hard to find today, but David Da Vall produces a few, and Leja Farms in Coachella sells them by mail order.

Although commercial harvests do generate a few naturals, the market for them has faded, so it doesn’t pay for handlers to sort and pamper them. In fact, packing houses dock growers for shipments with too many of the perishable fruits.

“People have lost the knowledge about naturals,” said John Keck, the owner of Hadley’s. “But the few who know say, ‘Give them to me!”’


An Industry in Decline?

Keck noted that date growers, like many farmers, face a host of problems, including low-priced imports, crop-damaging mites and soil compaction. But in the past decade they’ve encountered a challenge and opportunity unique to the date industry: Landscape designers crave their palms for commercial and residential developments, golf courses and the like. Palm brokers and nurseries pay $1,000 or more for straight, healthy specimens, preferring trees about 15 feet tall, the peak age for production. At their new homes, the trees are trimmed of their fruit stalks so they don’t make a mess.

Many growers, including Patrick Leja, Robert Lower and David Da Vall, say that in the past few years one man, Duane Young, has bought or leased a huge chunk of the state’s date acreage (some say as much as half) through his W.D. Young & Sons nursery and other businesses controlled by his family. By all accounts, they dominate the trade in date palms for landscaping. Young and his representatives declined to be interviewed for this article.

The demand for ornamental palms appears to be both threat and blessing for the date industry. On the negative side, in the last five years, as growers have sold off mature trees faster than newly planted ones came into bearing, California’s date production has dropped 20%. If this trend continues, the industry risks permanently losing its market to imports. For more and more growers, trees are their most important crop, and the fruits are secondary.

“There’s been an influx of people inexperienced in date culture,” said Tim Burke, general manager of Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal. “Their impact on quality remains to be seen.”

On the other hand, many growers are delighted that they can earn good money selling their palms before they get impractically tall. Farmers of other tree fruits would love to have that option in tough times.

“There’s not a grower in our industry who could have made money recently without selling trees,” said John Beck, executive director of the California Date Commission.


David Da Vall summed it up: “You gotta do what you gotta do to stay ahead in the date business.’


Where to Get a Date

Here are our favorite places to buy the dates described in this article.

* Bautista Date Ranch. Mecca. Organic Barhi ( khalal and rutab ), Deglet Noor, Halawy, Khadrawy, Medjool, Zahidi. At Santa Monica farmers market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Redondo Beach (Harbor Drive south of Redondo Beach Pier), Thursdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Torrance (2200 Crenshaw Blvd.), Saturdays and Tuesdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Santa Monica (Pico and Cloverfield Boulevards), Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Beverly Hills (Canon Drive between Clifton and Dayton ways), Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Encino (17400 Victory Blvd.), Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Hollywood (Ivar Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

* Conejo Dates. Thermal. Barhi, Deglet Noor and Medjool. At Fullerton farmers market (450 W. Orangethorpe Ave.), Wednesdays 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Torrance (2200 Crenshaw Blvd.), Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mail order:

* Da Vall Date Gardens. Coachella. Organic Empress, Honey, TR ( rutab ); Deglet Noor (naturals, starting in a few weeks), Medjool. At Santa Monica farmers market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

* Ellett Medjool Dates. Brawley. Organic Medjool. Mail order: (760) 352-2299.

* Flying Disc Ranch. Thermal. Biodynamic Barhi ( khalal and rutab ), Dayri, Deglet Noor, Medjool, Zahidi. At Santa Monica farmers market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; downtown Long Beach (Broadway at Promenade North), Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Hollywood (Ivar Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mail order: Send self-addressed, stamped envelope for price list to P.O. Box 201, Thermal, CA 92274; (760) 399-5313.

* Four Apostles’ Ranch. Bermuda Dunes. Organic Medjool. At Santa Monica farmers market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Ventura (Santa Clara and Palm streets), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to noon; Ojai (300 E. Matilija St.), Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mail order:; (760) 345-6171.


* Hadley Fruit Orchards. Thermal. Barhi, Deglet Noor (including some naturals), Halawy, Honey, Khadrawy, Medjool, Thoory, Zahidi. Store at 48980 Seminole Drive, Cabazon; (909) 849-5255. Mail order: (888) 854-5655.

* Imperial Date Gardens. Orchard and store at 1517 York Road, Bard. Medjool ( rutab available early in season). Mail order:; (800) 301-9349.

* Leja Farms. Orchard and packing house sales at 52-500 Van Buren St., Coachella. Deglet Noor (naturals starting in mid-October), Medjool. Mail order:; (760) 398-8702, (800) 98-DATES.

* Oasis Date Gardens. Orchard and store at 59-111 Hwy. 111, Thermal. Organic Medjool, Barhi ( khalal and rutab ), Deglet Noor (may have naturals), Halawy, Khadrawy, Thoory, Zahidi. Mail order:; (800) 827-8017.

* Pato’s Dream Date Gardens. Thermal. Organic Barhi, Deglet Noor, Halawy, Maktoom, Medjool, Tarbizal. At Alhambra farmers market (East Bay State and Monterey streets), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mail order: Send e-mail to

* Shields Date Gardens. Orchard and store at 80-225 Hwy. 111, Indio. Deglet Noor (naturals starting in early November), Blonde, Brunette. Mail order:; (800) 414-2555.


A Date Glossary: From Barhi to Zahidi

* Barhi. Name linked to hot summer winds ( bahr ) at Basra, Iraq, whence the variety was imported to California in 1913. Soft type; early to midseason; small to medium-size, oval to nearly round fruit; khalal color buff yellow (this is the only commercial date sufficiently non-astringent to be enjoyed at this stage); rutab golden amber; tamar mahogany brown; flesh translucent golden brown, smooth and honey-flavored, exquisite in the rutab stage.

* Black dates. Includes varieties such as Abbada (from Brawley), Black Sphinx (from Phoenix) and Hayany (from Egypt), grown as specialty items. Most are red in the khalal stage and almost black at maturity, with flesh so soft that they can’t be shipped.

* Deglet Noor. “Date of Light.” Originated in 17th century Algeria; introduced to the U.S. in 1900. Late season; medium-size, oblong-ovate fruit; khalal color light orange-brown; rutab golden amber, translucent (the best are called “naturals”); tamar deeper brown to mahogany red; flesh firm but tender; at best, flavor mild, delicate, distinctive (fruit contains higher percentage of sucrose than most dates, which have more fructose and glucose). Leading variety in California, 70% to 75% of the crop.


* Empress. Seedling of Thoory, first planted in 1916 by Everett K. Da Vall, Rancho Mirage. Midseason; medium to large, oblong; khalal color yellow; amber to medium-brown at maturity; flesh medium soft, flavor rich. Specialty of Da Vall family.

* Halawy. “Sweet.” Introduced from Basra, Iraq, in 1902. Early season; medium size, oblong; khalal color buff yellow; rutab light amber; tamar golden brown; flesh tender, caramel-like, flavor very sweet and honey-like. A favorite of Coachella Valley dwellers, grown commercially on a small scale.

* Honey. Seedling of Thoory, first planted in 1916 by Everett K. Da Vall, Rancho Mirage. Early to midseason; medium size, oblong-oval; khalal color buff yellow; amber to reddish-brown at maturity; flesh soft, melting; flavor mild. Specialty of Da Vall family.

* Khadrawy. “Green.” Soft type; early season; small to medium-size, oblong-ovate; khalal light yellow; rutab amber, sometimes with a slight greenish tinge; tamar reddish brown; flesh soft, melting, but granulates in storage; flavor rich without being cloying. Secondary variety, grown commercially on a small scale.

* Medjool. Introduced from Bou Denib, Morocco, in 1927. Early season; large to very large, oblong-oval; khalal color orange-yellow; rutab translucent amber, flesh soft, with rag adhering to pit; tamar reddish brown, flesh firm and dense; flavor mildly rich. Leading high-end and gift date, specialty of the Bard Valley; increasingly popular variety, second in importance in California, 20% to 25% of the crop.

* Thoory. “The bull’s date.” Introduced from Algeria in 1900. Dry type; late season; above medium size; khalal color yellow; ripens to light reddish brown or straw color; firm to rather hard and brittle flesh; flavor nutty and delicate. Rarely grown but leading dry (“bread”) date; keeps well, useful as a snack.


* Zahidi. “Nobility.” Introduced from northern Iraq in 1902. Midseason; small to medium-size, obovate; khalal color buff to apricot yellow; rutab light brown to straw-colored; tamar reddish or golden brown; flesh firm, can be fibrous; flavor sweet but not outstanding. Popular for landscaping, so the fruit’s availability has decreased.