The medjool date is a very soft, sweet date, the fruit of the date palm tree. Of the many varieties of date, the medjool is among the best and most expensive. Most medjool dates grown in the United States come from palms first imported into California’s Coachella Valley from Morocco in the 1920s. In Morocco, the medjool was reserved for royalty.
Technically, no palm tree is really even a tree—they do not have a trunk whose girth increases with age. Palm “trees” produce the same offshoots or “suckers” that a houseplant palm does, but these are pruned off to isolate the main stem. A number of palms produce dates as a fruit. Some, like the Indian wild date, are edible. Others, like the Canary Island date, are too astringent. The dates of commerce all come from Phoenix dactylifera, the “true date palm.”
The True Date Palm
The true date palm likes a sunny, hot, dry climate with a good groundwater supply but little rain. This makes it the perfect plant for desert oases. It grows in North Africa and the Middle and Near East. People have cultivated the date palm for perhaps 6,000. It is a splendid looking tree, reaching 80 to 100 feet in height and crowned with up to 200 20-foot long fronds.
The date palm’s male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, which means that for cultivation a stand of female trees must have a male tree nearby. The many female cultivars are hand pollinated, and it is this which produces the great variety of dates available from the one species of date palm. The medjool is one cultivar; others are the deglet noor, the halawy, and the khoury. Dates are categorized as soft, dry and semidry. The deglet noor, a semidry type, is the one most often found in stores.
Characteristics of the Medjool
The medjool is very soft, rich amber-red and very sweet. It is so full of natural sugars that its outer skin shines with sugar crystals. It has a luscious, spiced, almost baked taste. And it will be expensive, close to $10 a pound, mostly because growing and harvesting medjool dates is so labor-intensive. After hand pollination, the trees must be netted to protect them from dust and rain, and the crop must be thinned and hand harvested again and again because the dates, even from one tree, all ripen at different times.
The drier dates like deglet noor are useful for baking and cooking because they can be more easily chopped and mixed than a soft date. The medjool are sumptuous enough to be simply eaten out of hand—beware, each does contain a pit. They are also a good source of nutrition, high in carbohydrates and containing some protein and many vitamins. You’ll find them in season from September through November, and they’ll keep in a container in the refrigerator for up to six months.