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Date Palm Pollen

by Phil Iddison

From late January to March each year the Al Ain souq has an unusual commodity, date palm pollen. The usual mode of sale is in the form of the whole flower spathe from the male palm. The local name is tal-la and the pollen is nabat.

The spathe is a greenish brown flattened sheath, 40 to 70 cm, long, narrowing at the ends and in some cases with a substantial bulge in the middle. This protects the date palm flowers as they develop, as the sepals on a flower protect the petals before they open.

Both male and female palms bear these spathes, they appear from the bases of the palm leaves towards the top of the palm. Obviously the female flowers have to be left on the palm to develop. However as most of the date palms in Al Ain are female plants and wind-born pollination is erratic, to ensure a good crop artificial pollination is carried out. This is where the male flowers in the souq come into their own.

The male flower pollen is not affected by being severed from the palm and is still viable. Inside the spathe dozens of spikelets are lined with small male flowers. Traditionally to pollinate a spathe on a female palm, a piece of mature male spikelet is inserted into the female spathe as it splits open and loosely binding the spathe so that it is not disturbed as the flowers on the female spikelets are pollinated.

The sale of these male flowers is quite a ritual in the market. It usually entails much questioning and discussion, and the spathe is examined minutely. Often a strip of the covering has been peeled back to expose the spikelets. The spathe is then bound with a piece of date palm frond to prevent it opening further, as it would otherwise quickly deploy into a open brush of spikelets. The unpeeled spathe may be pressed with the thumb and finger whilst listening to the resultant sound, this indicates whether it is ripe for pollination. The exposed flowers may be smelt, they have a sweet scent. The opened spathe can be tapped against the back of the hand to see if it is shedding pollen. This is a timeless ritual.

As the season progresses, vendors may have a box or bag of individual dried spikes from the male flower. These are still viable as a pollen source and may be kept until next year to pollinate any early bearing female palms. Tapping the spikes releases a cloud of pollen.

The male flowers are also eaten directly as a fresh vegetable, the pollen may be considered to enhance fertility.

One extraordinary sight in the hot spring of 2000 was the appearance of a second flush of female flowers on a well-established palm in the gardens of the Municipality building in Al Ain. This group of bursting spathes appeared about eight to ten weeks after the palm had produced its first crop of flowers. At the time of writing they do not appear to have been pollinated and will probably wither and die back.

Date pollen spathe on sale in the Al Ain market.



Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan