"The Green Desert"
Date Palm in Oman < DATE PALM <
OMAN AGRICULTURE

This splendid date palm grove pays testimony to the ancient tradition of date palm cultivation in the Sultanate —Picture by Khamis al Moharbi

The date palm is the most enduring symbol of the Sultanate's rich heritage, alongside the trusty camel, the vitalising falaj and other long-cherished aspects of traditional Omani life. It has been the main wealth of people in past generations, the fruit serving as a source of daily nourishment, with the branches and the tree trunk proving valuable in the creation of a great many things that have been an integral part of the Omani home and household.

Even today, date palm cultivation continues to be the mainstay of the vast majority of farmers in the Sultanate. Not only is it a source of income, but the pursuit of a tradition bequeathed by one generation to the next. The palm thus enjoys a near hallowed place in every farmer's consciousness. A good harvest would not only represent the fruit of his labour, but that of his father and possibly his grandfather before him as well, who planted the tree in the first place and nurtured it carefully in his lifetime.

For many farmers therefore, the death of a tree, or the threat of blight, can likely trigger near so much grief as a family tragedy. The date palm season usually starts around January, when farmers go about the task of facilitating the fertilisation of the female palm tree. From earliest times, fertilisation has been aided by cutting off the male flower cluster just before the stamens ripen and suspending it among the flowers of the female tree.

Elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula, mechanical blowers are used to deposit a coat of pollen on the female flowers.It is an arduous process given the fact that only one male tree may be found in a whole garden of palm trees. Moreover, the farmer has to make sure there are enough stamens to go around for the whole fertilisation process to be satisfactory enough to ensure a bountiful yield. At this time, he also trims each tree of dried branches. Three months later, the farmer is up the tree again, to make sure the blossoming date clusters descend properly and rest on the tree's lowest ring of green branches.

This would not only facilitate their healthy growth into mature dates, but would also allow the farmer easy access to the clusters at harvest.The harvest is usually undertaken in two stages. The first stage — locally termed as Ratab — involves the picking of only those dates that are partially ripe on the tree.

These dates — mainly of the Ash Patash and Al Nagal varieties — are among the first to hit the market, but are not as sweet as the ones that are to follow.As the harvest season progresses, dates of the Al Khunaizi variety — described as the most sugary in taste — and the Al Khalas — billed as the most delicious — also enter the market, followed closely by Al Mebselli and Al Khasab varieties.However, some quantities of dates, especially of the coveted Al Khalas and Al Khunaizi varieties — are left on the tree to naturally ripen, thus allowing the fruit to acquire its full taste and flavour.

These are harvested en masse during the second stage of the harvest — popularly called Al Tamer. The Al Tamer harvest generally represents dates of guaranteed taste, flavour and quality. The annual yield of a single tree may reach 270 kg, with each cluster of dates weighing up to 12 kg. The fleshy part of the fruit contains about 58 per cent sugar and 2 per cent each of fat, protein, and minerals. Leaf stalks are used for basketry and wickerwork, leaves are woven into bags and mats, and fibre from both is made into cordage.

© Adapted from Oman Observer