"The Green Desert"

Traditional Pollination of Date Palm

TRADITIONAL farming methods perfected through modern applications have sustained and improved the yield of date palms in the Sultanate, especially in places like the wilayat of Ibri in Dhahirah region, which boasts the best variety of khalas dates.

The long history of date palm cultivation in Oman is closely linked to the indigenous farming methods rooted in traditional wisdom.

A farmer smells a date palm flower to ascertain its quality — Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

The first stage of fruit on a female date palm, which was pollinated through the manual process

Pollination is a complicated process in date cultivation. If one were to depend on wind-aided natural pollination, 50 per cent of the trees should be male, which makes date farming uneconomical.

This, therefore, necessitated the adoption of a manual pollination process to ensure a rich crop. The natural, wind-aided pollination of date palms is a big constraint due to the requirement of equal proportion of male and female trees in a field.

A farmer appears content with the male date palm flower selected by him

This process meant that a field could never be fully productive as half of the space would be taken up by male plants.

Date palm is unisexual, being either male or female. Male and female flowers grow on buds called Spath, which opens naturally when fully mature.

It is easy to identify the male and female flowers. Under the method of manual pollination, pollen from a male flower is smeared over female flowers. This works very well and also guarantees higher yield.

Male date palm flowers and saplings at Ibri market

The most important benefit of the manual pollination process is that male flowers from a single tree can be used to pollinate 40 to 50 female date palms.

A farmer shows a khalas date palm sapling

This allows farms to be rid of male plants and nurture female plants in their place. To facilitate pollination, only two or three male date palms are required in a field.

As soon as the buds carrying the pollen split naturally, the buds are fully cut to dry the pollen in the sun, protected from winds. While drying the pollen, buds should not be placed one over another as wet pollen would easily rot.

The flowers should be frequently turned till both sides are evenly dried. Proper drying takes about two to three days after which the pollen should be collected and kept in a wooden or metal box to protect it from humidity and insects.

Farmers closely inspect a male date palm flower

Another way to dry the pollen is to hang the flowers on a rope in a well ventilated room. Pollen dried in this manner can be preserved for two to three months before they are used.

Pollen dried under four degree centigrade can be kept for as long as one year. Another method is to keep the flowers in thin layers of paper or on a mesh so that pollen is collected after they fall from the buds.

To carry out the manual pollination process, pollens are collected and pressed into a piece of cotton the size of an almond.

Every flower of a female tree requires two such pieces for pollination. It is better to tie the cotton piece carrying the pollens lightly on to the flower by a small rope or straw.

In the event of rain or strong winds, pollination must be repeated. One can also blow pollen into the flowers if there are plenty of male flowers.

The time of blossoming and pollination varies according to the different types of date palms. Those grown in hot areas blossom faster.

Dr Fairis from California noted that as soon as the date fruit turns ripe, buds carrying pollens start growing on the tree for the next crop.

In spring, the flower buds become ready, but will be fully covered and start blossoming only at the start of summer.

Blossoming takes a month or more depending on the intensity of heat. The hotter the weather, the shorter the blossoming period. Some date palms blossom twice a year while the majority takes as long as three months to complete the single blossoming process.

The amount of fruit yielded by a date palm depends on the quantity of nutrients it receives and general care and environment.

A well looked after date palm can yield as many as 20 bunches of fruit.Date palms yield fruit in alternate years, producing in a year and resting in the next.

Other factors affecting the quantity and quality of date crop are the type of pollens and climatic conditions during pollination.

A date palm starts blossoming and giving fruit after the fourth or sixth year. Date palms grown in sandy or poor soil start giving fruit before the ones grown on rich soil, because the latter's priority is to accumulate leaves and then bear fruit.

These days, male date flowers are sold in traditional markets such as Ibri. During the date flowering season, the daily auctioning in Ibri market in fact starts with male date palm flowers.

A trader shows two male date palm flowers ready for pollination

The auction of date palm flowers in full swing at Ibri market

Normally, male flowers mature in the month of January and the elongated flower buds fetch up to RO10 each depending on their size.

Shunain bin Hamed al Yaqoubi, an auctioneer, said that many farmers preferred to buy male flowers to carry out pollination.

The daily average sales in the traditional market in Ibri touched about 100 male flowers, he added.Last year, the male flowers were in big demand as female plants flowered early.

This year, however, the male flowers appeared in time and hence the price was normal, Al Yaqoubi said.

Farmers determine the quality of male date flowers by their smell and other features. The pollination period could last up to 40 days, he added.


© Adapted from Oman Observer.