Agnote 686 No. D35 December 1996 Agdex No: 270/20 ISSN No: 0157-8243 Date Production G. Kenna, Regional Horticulturist, Alice Springs The date palm has possibly been grown under cultivation for its fruit longer than any other plant. While its exact origin is unknown it is thought to have occurred naturally in an area extending from the Euphrates to the Canary Islands. Date fruit was an important food item and was traded extensively along the trade routes of the old world. Currently, the major date producing countries are Iran, Pakistan and the USA. China, Lebanon, Israel and Mexico are also significant producers. AUSTRALIAN PRODUCTION The consumption of fresh dates in Australia has increased substantially in recent years. Increased consumer awareness of the nutritional value and eating qualities of date fruit is a major reason for this. In addition, increased migration from Islamic countries, where dates play an important part in the religious life of communities has also led to an increase in demand on Australian markets. In 1991-92 import of dates was 3 800 tonnes valued at $7.7 million, of which about 70% were dried dates and 30% were fresh dates. The bulk of imports are from Iran, Pakistan and the USA with China, Lebanon, Israel and Mexico also supplying significant quantities. Australian production in 1994 was about 5 tonnes. Australian production has largely been restricted to the Alice Springs region. There are plantings in Alice Springs (the Mecca Date Gardens), at Deep Well 80 km south of Alice Springs and at Limestone Bore 60 km south of Alice Springs. 2 More recently, plantings have been made at Gascoyne Junction in Western Australia and in the Cunnamulla-Eulo area in Western Queensland. The latter plantings total about 7 000 palms and many have been cropping for at least two year VARIETIES There are many date varieties available to commercial growers. Date fruit varies considerably in size, moisture content and eating qualities. Most of the well known commercial selections which are in demand by consumers have originated in the Middle East and North Africa where they have been selected for various fruit quality characteristics over many centuries. Varieties which are in high demand in markets across the world include Medjool, Barhee, Deglet Noor and Thoory. CLIMATE A long hot growing season with a low humidity is essential for good palm growth and the production of high quality fruit. Temperatures during the growing season are assessed as heat units when determining whether a location has a suitable climate for date production. The number of heat units experienced in a particular geographic location are determined by summing the daily maximum temperatures minus 18 degrees C. For adequate palm growth and yields of quality fruit from most date varieties the total heat units from flowering (August - September) to fruit maturation (February - April) must exceed 2,000 units. At Alice Springs the average annual total heat units is 2,843. SOIL AND WATER REQUIREMENTS While dates will grow on a wide range of soil types, freely draining sands or sandy loams with good moisture holding capacity and low salt levels are ideal. Rainfall can be detrimental to the production of quality fruit especially if it falls as the fruit reaches maturity. Splitting, and checking of fruit will occur if rain falls during this time. If rain or high humidity occurs regularly during the fruit maturity period moulds and rots will develop which may result in high crop losses and downgrading of fruit quality. Water requirement for date palms is high, and since the date palm is best suited to hot climatic areas of Australia where evaporation rates are high and rainfall is low, adequate supplies of irrigation water are essential if viable commercial crops of high quality fruit are to be produced. In Central Australia, palms in the first year require about 1.2 ML/ha and this increases to 5 ML/ha in year three, 10 ML/ha in year five and 27 ML/ha in year ten. Micro irrigation techniques using drippers are the most efficient method of applying irrigation water. The root system is extensive with roots attaining lengths of 3-13 metres. PLANT GROWTH The date palm can grow to 20 m in height and survive for over 80 years, however the commercial life of date palms is usually much less than this. Up to 25 leaves are produced each year and these have a functional life of about four years. Like other palms, date palms have a single growing point and the plant will die if this is removed. Date palms are dioecious, bearing the male and female flowers on separate plants. It is not possible to determine the sex of a date palm until it flowers which may not occur until the plant reaches the age of 5 years. A preponderence of male palms is undesirable in a commercial planting situation. 3 PROPAGATION Date palms can be propagated from seed but this is not recommended as a means of obtaining planting material to establish a commercial planting because palms grown from seed vary considerably in the quality of the fruit which they produce and fruit quality is inferior to that produced from imported commercial cultivars. Propagation is possible using offshoots from the base or the trunk of the parent palm which are, of course, genetically identical to the parent. A palm usually starts to produce offshoots in its second year and will continue to do so until it reaches around 12 years of age. Once these offshoots have reached a diameter of 15 cm at their base they can be removed from the parent palm and used as planting material. If the offshoots are not needed for further plantings they should be removed as soon as possible as they detract from the vigour of the parent palm and may even eventually cause the parent to be pushed out of the ground as they grow as big or bigger than the parent. More recently, tissue culture techniques have been used to propagate date palms. This is an efficient method of producing large numbers of plants at a reasonable cost and is also a preferred method of importing plant material which conforms to quarantine regulations. ORCHARD DESIGN, EXPECTED YIELD, AND POLLINATION Commercial date palms are usually planted on a 9 m square pattern (i.e. 123 palms/ha) with one male palm per 30 females. Male palms should be planted in an area which is isolated from the female palms for improved palm management. Under good growing conditions fruit production commences about five years after planting with peak bearing obtained at year twelve. Average yields range from 5 kg/palm at year 6 (165 kg/ha) to 100 kg/palm at year 12 (12 300 kg/ha). While the male flowers produce a large quantity of pollen which is attractive to bees, natural pollination generally results in poor yields. Consequently, in commercial production the female flowers are hand pollinated using pollen taken from the male palm. The spathe is cut from the female flower as it begins to open and dried pollen from the male flowers is blown onto the female flowers through an applicator. Commercial date production is highly labour intensive. It requires hand pollination of date flowers, necessary in order to produce commercial yields of high quality fruit, fruit thinning, tying bunches to leaves, fitting covers to bunches to protect them from birds and a long harvest period. 4 PESTS AND DISEASES Date palms grown in hot dry areas, such as Alice Springs, are largely free from diseases. Parlatoria scale has proved to be a major insect pest in many areas of Australia. The scale readily attacks date palms reducing vigour and fruit yields and its presence causes fruit to be downgraded or made unmarketable. The scale is a gazetted pest under the NT Plant Pest and Diseases Act and restrictions are placed on the movement of date palms in some areas of the Territory. Eradication of this pest in the commercial date growing areas will assist the Australian date industry to reach its full potential. Other DBIRD publications evaluate economic and agronomic prospects for date production in Central Australia. Please visit us on our website at www.primaryindustry.nt.gov.au While all care has been taken to ensure that information contained in this Agnote is true and correct at the time of publication, the Northern Territory of Australia gives no warranty or assurance, and makes no representation as to the accuracy of any information or advice contained in this publication, or that it is suitable for your intended use. No serious, business or investment decisions should be made in reliance on this information without obtaining independent/or professional advice in relation to your particular situation.