Today, the date belt stretches from the Indus Valley in the east, Somalia and Spain in the west, and Turkmenistan and India in the east. The FAO estimated the cultivation area for dates to be 1.3 million ha in 2009 (FAO Statistics, 2010). The largest area (833,351 hectares) is on the Asian continent, including the Middle East. Africa cultivated 416,695 hectares of date palm, mostly in the north (392,200 hectares). According to FAO statistics, the world’s largest producer over the last five years has been Egypt, with an average production of 1.3 million metric tons.
With 70 percent sugar by weight, dates are referred to as natures’ candy. Date palm is used as a sweetener and fermented into vinegar and alcoholic beverages. A special type of date wine called araqe is still manufactured in rural Egypt. In India, a local wine is produced from date palm fruit. In times of drought and food scarcity, the trunk of the palm tree can be pulverized and turned into an edible coarse flour. Dry or soft dates are eaten out of hand or used in cooking. The terminal bud is eaten as vegetable. In modern commercial production, the hard seed is mechanically separated from the sweet flesh. The fruit is then converted into cubes, pastes, spreads, and sugars. Culled fruits are dehydrated, ground, and mixed with grain to produce a nutritious animal feed stock for camels, dogs, and horses in areas where date palm is abundant, such as the Sahara. In many Arabic countries, water is boiled with dates to make a sweet tea. The Bedouins and other nomads of the desert boil milk with dates to make a sweet nutritious drink. Muslims traditionally break the Ramadan fast with dates. Date palm trees are sometimes tapped to yield a sweet sap, which converts to sugar and alcohol in a few hours. Zahdi dates from Iraq produce good-quality, light-colored, dry wine. Date syrup makes a darker, sweeter wine. In India, date sugar is made from Phoenix sylvestris. Date seeds are also roasted, ground, and used to adulterate coffee by unscrupulous people. P. sylvestris does not yield high-quality fruit, so it is tapped for a liquor called toddy by cutting the terminal bud and collecting the sweet sap. Adding a small quantity of urea aids the fermentation process.
The ancient Egyptians used fresh dates, date kernels, dry myrrh, and wax to form a paste that bandaged swollen limbs. The Prophet Mohammed said that the direct external use of tamr paste cures the effects of poisonous bites. Eating ripe dates at bedtime was said to remove Ascaris worms. Dates are also used traditionally to treat liver ailments, hemorrhoids, and inflammation from kidney, cardiac, nervous, and other ailments. The pollen was used to enhance fertility. Women used dates before and after delivery as a tonic for uterine muscles, to aid and prevent bleeding in childbirth, and as a lactagogue (the potassium, glycine, and threonine help activate the milk hormone prolactin). Dates were recommended in mouthwashes as a purgative, and the roots were used to relieve tooth aches. Ointments made from dates were applied to treat wounds and bruises. Dates were also used to treat eye injuries, colds, fevers, cystitis, edema, sore throat, bronchial catarrh, liver cancer, low sperm count, and abdominal trouble. Combined with other herbs, they were used for swollen and aching legs, coughs, and sneezing. Dates were also believed to fortify the body, enrich the blood, cure back pain, and invigorate loins. The sap from the leaves was used as a remedy for nervousness and kidney trouble. Date seeds were burnt to produce kohl for eyes. Date seed paste was used to relieve ague, and a paste of ripe dates in water acts as an antihistamine when applied externally to the skin. Its gum was used to treat diarrhea and counteract alcoholic intoxication.
Dates contain nutrients and minerals like potassium, copper, and magnesium that have cardioprotective properties. Potassium reduces high blood pressure, and soluble fiber helps reduce cholesterol. The pollen yields an estrogenic principle and has shown a gonadotropic effect on young rats, perhaps explaining the traditional belief that dates possessed an aphrodisiac property when mixed with milk and cinnamon. Estron hormone is extracted from date seeds and treated chemically to obtain stradiol, which is used in cancer treatments. Al Qarawi et al. (2013) have shown that CCl4-induced liver damage in rats can be treated with date flesh or pit extract. Experiments conducted on rats indicate that antioxidants and fatty acids in P. dactylifera benefit the brain, although the psychological benefits are not clearly indicated (Ismail et al., 2013). The oral administration of P. dactylifera extract along with a high-fat diet showed antihyperlipidemic efficacy of the species. Possible use in common carotid artery occlusion induced by oxidative stress and neuronal damage in rats was studied and validated by Pujari et al. (2011). Hepatoprotective properties of date palm, along with Glycyrrhiza glabra, were studied and validated by Abdelrahman et al. (2012). Vayallil (2002) found that the antioxidant and antimutagenic activity in date fruit is quite potent, which suggests the presence of compounds with free-radical scavenging activity.
Varying degrees of growth inhibition have been observed in Fusarium, Aspergillus, Alternaria, and Trichoderma species when exposed to extracts of date palm swathes. (Perveen et al., 2012). Aamir et al. (2013) tested the extracts and fractions for antimicrobial activity and noted synergistic activity against standard microbial strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae (Gram-negative), Staphylococcus aureus (Gram positive), E. coli (Gram negative), Salmonella typhi (Gram negative), Enterococcus faecalis (Gram positive), Pseudomonas aeruginosa (Gram negative), and Salmonella paratyphi (Gram negative). P. dactylifera was observed to have a hepatoprotective effect in thioacetamide-induced hepatic necrosis in rats (Okwuosa et al., 2014). Al-Taher’s (2008) studies on rats indicate anticonvulsant properties of date palm spathes. Studies have also shown that constituents of dates have potent antioxidant, antitumor, and anti-inflammatory effects. Ajwah is the most medicinal cultivar. Studies attribute its anticancer properties to its high magnesium level. Ajwah dates are a natural source of folic acid, which help mitigate cardiovascular diseases.