"The Green Desert"

Date Palm of Nizwa

Khalas and khunaizi, relished for their delicious taste and succulence, are the choice favourites among the staggering variety of dates that grow in Nizwa. Demand for these prized dates is burgeoning as entire farms in the wilayat are now being devoted to the cultivation of the crème de la crème of Omani dates

An offering of delicious khalas dates — Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

FOR the majority of Nizwa's farmers, the khalas and khunaizi are proving to be something of a money-spinner, thanks to an ever-increasing appetite for these most celebrated of Omani dates. They command premium prices as demand for these all-time favourites far outstrips supply. So lucrative are the crops that farmers are now switching en masse to the exclusive production of khalas and khunaizi type dates. These account for roughly half of all the date palms that grow in the wilayat's lush gardens. Other notable types like bunaringah, khasab, naghal, handhal and qashkantarah are among 40 different varieties that grow in Nizwa.

In fact, Nizwa's date bounty is the pride of Oman's vast date palm heritage. Although the wilayat has no exclusive claim to any one type of date, its harvests are the envy of farmers elsewhere in the Sultanate. Ideal weather conditions in the Interior region, characterised by long, hot summer and low humidity, ensure the perfect environment for high-quality and high-yield fruit.Leading the pack is the khalas — a bright yellow, oval-shaped fruit that is both juicy and delicious. Hugely relished throughout the Sultanate, it fetches the lion's share of an ordinary farmer's earnings.

The dark red khunaizi, which are in great demand both in season and as dry dates

Roughly 25 per cent of all date palms in a typical Nizwa farm are of the khalas type, says veteran farmer Soud bin Zahran al Ismaili, who is also one of the wilayat's best-known experts on date farming. He also doubles as the official caretaker of Nizwa's great tourist attraction — the Falaj Daris — which, along with other major aflaj, is responsible for nurturing Nizwa's fine heritage of date palms. An early-season crop, the khalas is harvested during the July-August period of the date season.

Usually eaten fresh, the universal appeal of the fruit stems from its delectable fleshy texture. Moreover, it retains its appetising colour and succulence even after turning completely ripe. "The khalas is good business for farmers," remarks Al Ismaili. "A single tree's yield is worth about RO80-100, which surpasses in value other varieties cultivated in the wilayat. Also, yields can be as high as 100kg per tree during the course of the season." In fact, the khalas is emerging as the dominant date crop in the wilayat, progressively supplanting other varieties that are of a commercially inferior value.

Gentle falaj flowing through Nizwa's lush date farms

Virtually every palm tree felled by either age or disease is now being replaced by a khalas tree, adds Al Ismaili. Competing strongly with the khalas is the khunaizi — a dark red fruit that is relished either fresh or half dry. A tour of Nizwa's verdant countryside would reveal vast clusters of these red dates that, along with the bright yellow clusters of the khalas, and the dark pink blooms of the bunaringah, add much appeal to the wilayat's date farms. The bunaringah is another local favourite that grows abundantly around Nizwa.

Date buffs enjoy this bright yellow fruit because it is palatable and easy on the stomach when consumed in large quantities. Demand for the fruit also comes from date processing factories in Nizwa and elsewhere. The first of Nizwa's 40-odd date varieties reach full-blown maturity in the early part of summer, with the date season lasting until December. Early-season crops include the naghal, manzaj, manhi and qashkantarah.

Splendid blooms of dates, which are among 40 different varieties growing in Nizwa

Choice varieties like the khalas, khunaizi, barni, qashtabaq and handhal follow during July and August. Then come the khasab, zabad and khalas oman types, followed by hilali oman in September. Early crops, says Al Ismaili, are sensitive to rain and climate fluctuations often resulting in inferior yields. Later arrivals are more likely to mature into full-blown, fine quality crops. In fact, many traditional farmers prefer to grow a variety of date palms in their gardens to allow for a staggered harvest that ensures a steady income right through the eight-month date season.

While weather conditions dictate largely the quality and yield of the date crops, Nizwa's farmers also owe much of their good fortune to the abundance of water in the wilayat. The verdant swathe of date palms growing around the wilayat's best-known landmark — Nizwa fort — is irrigated by numerous streams fed by the bountiful waters of eight aflaj included Falaj Daris, Falaj al Jhandaq and Falaj A'Thot.Falaj Daris, described as the largest and most bounteous in the Sultanate, travels underground for about 3km before surfacing at Shariya, a delightful garden setting located just outside Nizwa town. Daris' mineral-rich waters nourish a third of Nizwa's lush gardens. Five other aflaj, in addition to Falaj al Jhandaq and Falaj A'Thot, course through the rest of Nizwa's lush date palm canopy.

Popular varieties of dates grown in Nizwa

  • Hilali oman: Cultivated in various parts of the Sultanate, this late-season crop has light yellow dates with a 60 per cent sugar content.
  • Khalas: The most valuable date crop, the khalas thrives in the Interior, Sharqiya and Dhahirah region, besides Al Rostaq. With 65 per cent sugar, it is among the most delicious. The fruit is bright yellow, oval-shaped, and is eaten either fresh or half-dry.
  • Khasab: A late-season crop, the khasab grows in all date-farming regions of the Sultanate, though quality yields come from Al Rostaq, Ibri and parts of the Sharqiya region. The fruit is dark red in colour, but some sub-types are yellowish.
  • Khunaizi: Cultivated in most areas of the Sultanate, these dark red dates can usually withstand high humidity levels. They are relished fresh in season or dry outside the season.
  • Mebselli: A mid-season crop, the mebselli, in line with traditional practice, is cooked and dried and exported to markets in the Indian sub-continent. It is also eaten fresh or naturally dried. It grows extensively in the Interior, Sharqiya, Dhahirah and Batinah regions.
  • Naghal: An early crop, the naghal is sensitive to humidity and thrives best in the hot, arid Interior region. A large part of the naghal harvest is destined for Oman's date processing factories.
  • Qashtabaq: Reddish-yellow in colour, these oblongish dates grow in the Interior, Dhahirah and Batinah regions. Sugar content is pegged at a significant 68 per cent.
© Adapted from Oman Observer