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

The Tropical Garden, Fall 2010

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Tucked away in the archives at Fairchild is an unpublished account of the introduction to American horticulture of Phoenix dactylifera, or as it is more commonly known, the date palm. 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 a 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 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 that 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 15 years or 50; 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, 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 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 20 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 more than 90% of them lived. This was 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.”