There are several kinds of dates, ranging from cylindrical to finger-shaped and varying in sweetness, colour and texture. Dates are generally around 50% sugar and contain fibre, as well as some protein, vitamins and minerals. The trees begin to bear fruit at around 4-5 years and are at their most fruitful at around 10-15 years of age, producing up to 80kg of dates each per year.
The date palm probably originated in the Persian Gulf and was a particularly important food source for the ancient African and Middle Eastern civilisations. Nomads used to carry dates on their travels through the deserts and planted the pits at oases they passed. It was also the main fruit-based sweetener before refined sugar was developed.
The ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations treasured it too. Cakes and pastries were made using date flour, pastes and syrups. In Greek and Roman theatres, dates wrapped in gold leaf were sold as snacks. The tree was also an important source of wood, fibre and sap and the palm has inspired a great deal of symbolism in many cultures and religions.
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