Date Palm Introduction

Introduction of Phoenix dactylifera:  Getting the Date Palm to the “New World”

Date palm in Arizona

"I cannot help considering this date palm as having a special interest." Dr. Fairchild visited Professor J.W. Toumey in 1901 on his way to South America with Barbour Lathrop. Toumey showed him this seedling date palm growing in front of his office in Tucson. It was one of those shipped from Egypt by the Dept. of Pomology in 1889. Believing in the future of a date industry in Arizona, Toumey offered to establish a Date Palm Introduction Garden if the Section of Plant Introduction would collect the best "Old World" date varieties.

Maktum Date
“To stand and look up at a tall Maktum date palm in the Tempe garden in Arizona, and try to realize that it was one and the same thing that you had puddled in mud on the deck of a Tigris river steamer twenty-six years before, was an experience that one does not forget. It is one of the recompenses which come to the agricultural explorer who is fortunate to be able to wait.”  Dr. Fairchild, 1928.
Phoenix dactylifera date palm in full fruit. Offshoot imported from Egypt by Division of Pomology in 1889. Indio, Calif. F. W. Johnson Aug. 1905

By Janet Mosely

“Here was a vast field for us to enter, exploration here would be worthy of the name of Agricultural Exploration.”    Dr. David Fairchild

Tucked away in the archives at Fairchild is an unpublished account of the introduction to American horticulture of Phoenix dactylifera.  Dr. Fairchild, as official historian of the USDA’s Section of Plant Introduction, wrote it in 1931.  It recounts in detail the early days of the Section’s investigation into the viability of creating a successful date industry in the U.S.

Some work had been done previously by the Pomological Division with Professor J. W. Toumey of the University of Arizona, and commercial growers (such as the Popenoes) were attempting to introduce dates into cultivation.  But it was the talented, well trained scientists in the Section of Plant Introduction who overcame obstacles and made the dream reality.  

In 1897, Walter T. Swingle - a colleague of Dr. Fairchild's at the USDA - became interested in the date palm despite learning it took approximately 15 years for a tree to produce fruit.  A bit daunted at first by the time element, Dr. Fairchild would later write “…as I look back now I wonder why we cared whether it took fifteen years or fifty; the fun came in getting the palms into America, watching them grow, and helping the industry to develop.”  For the next quarter century, Swingle, Dr. Fairchild and Professor Silas C. Mason and others would work through the intricacies involved in establishing the date palm in America.

At this time, date cultivation was almost entirely restricted to the Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa where the practice dated back more than 3,000 years.  “How Swingle struggled nights with Arabic, adding it to his repertoire of languages!  A new world was literally laid out before us, the world of oases and camels and palms,” Dr. Fairchild wrote. 

In 1899, Swingle set out to explore this world and found that, after locating and properly identifying suitable varieties, his next obstacle was in shipping them home.  Phoenix dactylifera will not fruit well from seed.  It was necessary to harvest suckers from the mature plant and ship these offshoots -- which weighed as much as twenty pounds -- in tubs.  Swingle’s first trial shipment was awkward, expensive and not very successful.   

In early 1900, Swingle went to Algeria to try again.  He brought with him sphagnum moss and coconut fiber, wrapped up eight tons of palm suckers, boxed them up and shipped them home.  Everyone thought they’d be smothered, but “…Swingle’s ingenuity turned the trick…” and 90% of them lived.  This was to be the first substantial shipment of date palms into the U.S. and became the basis of the experimental work on cultivation that followed in Arizona and California.  “The idea of planting the Southwestern deserts with date palms appealed to the American imagination, and the demand for a collection of date palms of the world was insistent.” 

(All quotations are from The Date Palm; unpublished manuscript by David Fairchild; Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Archive.)

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