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Potted Date Palm in Saint-Guilhem Cloister

Photograph by Barbara Bell.

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is one of two medieval species of palm grown in pots at The Cloisters. The other is the fan palm (Chamaerops humilis).

The single-stemmed date palm takes thirty years to reach maturity, and can live two hundred years. The tree, which can attain a height of eighty feet and whose drooping fruit clusters can weigh as much as fifty pounds, has a long period of juvenility (Moldenke and Moldenke, Plants of the Bible, 1952). Thus we are able to grow young specimens of various sizes in containers for display, although none are mature enough to bear dates.

Date palms are dioecious, i.e, there are both male and female date palm trees. It appears that even in Mesopotamian antiquity, the need to bring the male and female flowers together in order to ensure good fruiting was recognized, although it would be many, many centuries before plant sexuality was understood. The Greek botanist Theophrastus records the ancient practice of dusting the fruit of the female palm with bloom cut from the male in order to ensure that the fruit persisted and ripened (George Sarton, “The Artificial Fertilization of Date-Palms in the Time of Ashur-Nasir-Pal B.C. 885–860,” Isis, Vol 21, No. 1, 1934).

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