The tree of life

The desert is a harsh environment, which is inhospitable to many forms of vegetation. But there’s one tree that is perfectly at home in the arid heat and bright sunshine of the desert and that’s the date palm.

Two million and counting

Phoenix dactylifera – to give it its proper name – thrives in desert conditions, and produces the deliciously sweet date that is such a staple of Middle East cuisine. There are more than two million date palm trees at AlUla that offer generous harvests of more than 90,000 tonnes of date varieties at the end of every summer. Date palms take their time, however, and grow around one metre per year, often living as long as 150 years. A fully grown date palm can reach 20 metres in height but only produces fruit after around five years.

Dates

Dates have been eaten and used for their medicinal properties for thousands of years. The sweet, dark brown fruit can help to treat a sore throat or abdominal problems; its root extract combats toothache, while its seed paste can alleviate skin complaints. The bark and wood from the trunk has been used by people for centuries to make shelters, rope, fencing, furniture, baskets and jewellery. With all these attributes, it’s no wonder that the date is the subject of prayers in ancient inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah.


Each tree can produce up to 150 kilograms of fruit each year.

Against all odds

Fossil records show that the date palm has been in existence for at least 50 million years, but how is it able to tolerate such unforgiving desert conditions? The answer lies underground. Date palms have a wide root system that resembles a mesh which spreads out horizontally underground, enabling it to quickly soak up rainwater before it evaporates. This precious water is then stored in the tree’s thick fibrous trunk, which means the date palm can survive for several months without rainfall.

The date palm

Shaped to enable good airflow around the tree, the green leaves of the date palm can withstand intense sunlight by folding inwards during the day, and their waxy surface means dew doesn’t evaporate so quickly. High winds are a breeze for the date palm for three reasons: its leaves don’t offer much wind resistance; the flexibility of the trunk means it can bend; and the aforementioned network of roots acts as a strong anchor.

Lastly, the date palm is a good neighbour, providing shade that allows smaller trees underneath to grow. At AlUla, that means helping more than 200,000 citrus trees to bear fruit. Robust, beautiful and essential for life, the date palm is a hugely symbolic tree that is embedded in the culture of the Middle East.

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