Uncommon dates

Uncommon dates

Fresh, dried or boiled, the fruit of the palm is a treat for the senses

By Christopher Nyerges 06/11/2014

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Worldwide, there are about 200 genera of the palm family (Arecaceae) and about 2,600 species. These trees are conspicuous throughout California, planted in parks and along streets. Typically, they possess a large trunk, which could be fat or somewhat skinny, and can rise about 65 feet, as in the case of our only native, the California fan palm, or to more than 50 feet, as in the case of the Canary Island date palm, which is not native but has been widely naturalized in California. There is typically the trunk with the fronds which are either palmate-lobed or pinnate-lobed, also known as feather fronds. 

The fruits are usually drupes, or fleshy, and are generally — but not always — called “dates.” There is the common date palm with the sweet fruits and two-lobed seed, and there is also the little black round to oval fruits from the native palm. California has two genera of the palm family, but the only native California variation is the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera).

Everyone knows the date palms, which produce the sweet and delicious fruit you can buy anywhere these days. Many are grown in the low desert, not far from Palm Springs. A dried date from a health food store is a delicious thing. But freshly picked dates sold at roadside stores are heavenly. 

Once, while spending a week in the desert with a friend, we found a rest area on the outskirts of the Colorado River where we could park and spend the night. Date palms were planted nearby and their fruit was ripe. I picked one of the soft and sticky fruits and ate it. It was like eating sweet butter, nothing at all like a dried date.

Though date palms are common in commercial orchards in the desert, they are not generally widespread throughout the state. Our only native date comes from the California fan palm, which is mostly concentrated around the Palm Springs and lower desert area. Though not as common as the Mexican fan palm, the native fan palm can still be seen widely throughout Los Angeles and other counties. 

This palm was a natural hardware store used by the Cahuilla people who lived in the Palm Springs area. The leaves provided thatching for the roofs and coverings of their homes. Leaves were also used in traditional sandal-making. The dried flower and leaf stalks were used for making fire. They were also fashioned into drills, hearths and bows. The fruits, though small, were edible. There are many ways to use the small, black but abundant fruits of the native palm.

You can just pop the little fruits in your mouth and chew them, and spit out the seed, which is most of the fruit. The pulp is a little fibrous, and sweet, but not as sweet as commercial dates. 

As Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel write in “Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants,” each palm tree could contain as many as a dozen of the fruit clusters, each one weighing from five to 20 pounds. These were eaten fresh, or dried and then stored in pots. Flour was made from the entire fruit, flesh and seed. This palm seed flour was mixed with other flours and cooked into a mush. A beverage was made by soaking the fruits in water. Jelly was also made from the fruits. 

One method that I like is boiling a bunch of the black fruits in water. For starters, you could try boiling about a cup of the fruit in two cups of water for about 15 minutes, then taste it. Let it sit on your tongue to capture the subtle essence of its unique flavor. The juice could be made stronger, and would make a good sweetener for coffee, or even pancakes. 
Then eat a few of the boiled fruits, letting them roll around in your mouth while you chew off the thin flesh, which is sweet and very satisfying. Every time I try it I can understand why this plant was so valued by the desert natives. 

Fellow wilderness and urban survival expert Alan Halcon shared with me an interesting recipe that he developed using the California native fan palm fruits. He boiled the fruit and saved the water. The water had a subtle sweetness, but not overly sweet.  He added the water to his bannock mix (essentially, wheat flour), and cooked it up. Halcon said that this definitely improved the bannock flavor with a subtle sweet flavor. I asked him if he had a name for this recipe. Halcon smiled and said, “Yes, it’s called Halcon bannock.”  

Christopher Nyerges is the author of the newly released “Foraging California” and 12 other books on foraging and self-reliance. He conducts weekly classes. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041, or visit SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.

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