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Intro immage


 Besides the fruit, to which most of the contents of this publication is devoted, the date palm over the centuries has also provided a large number of other products which have been extensively used by man in all aspects of daily life. The often remoteness of the date producing areas with few other resources available has stimulated and refined these uses of basically rather coarse materials. However modern technological developments and improved communications have influenced, and in many instances decreased, their use. On the other hand these same technological developments have made it possible to look at the palm as a raw material source for industrial purposes. It seems, therefore, logical to review first the traditional uses of the various date palm parts, after which the more recent product development and use will be assessed.

Practically all parts of the date palm, except perhaps the roots, are used for a purpose best suited to them. A main division of date palm parts is made as follows: a) the trunk, b) the leaves (whole leaves, midribs, leaflets and spines, and the sheath at the leaf base), c) the reproductive organs (spathes, fruit stalk, spikelets and pollen) and d) a number of palm extracts.

5.1 Traditional use of palm products

Through the centuries the use of palm products in the date producing areas was diffused in all sectors of the economy from agriculture, transport and construction, to domestic use and reaching out also into the urban centres. On occasion the production of these palm products equalled or became more important than the date crop itself (318).

a. trunk:

the trunk or stem becomes available upon natural or accidental death of the palm or by forced removal. The soft growing point or terminal bud, sweet in taste, can be consumed either raw as a salad or as a cooked vegetable somewhat resembling artichoke hearts though this varies with the palm variety (445). Date growers of the Sahara attribute depurative properties to the bud and it is consumed more for this purpose than as a food (363). In time of food scarcity the inside of the trunk has been pulverized and turned into a coarse flour for human consumption (363). But the trunk's main use is for its wood, which intrinsically is not of high quality because of the coarse vascular bundles (monocotolydon!) but it has great tensile strength. Its use is therefore geared to exploit this characteristic such as for poles, beams (Fig. 86), rafters, lintels, girders, pillars, jetties and light foot bridges. For this purpose they can be used whole or split in half or quarters. Hollowed out half trunks are used as conduits for water, or at shorter lengths for mangers and troughs. Sawn into coarse planks they are made up into doors, shutters and staircases for houses (Fig. 87).

Figure 86: Palm Trunk used in Roof Making 
Figure 86: Palm Trunk used in Roof Making


Figure 87: Planks made out of Palm Trunk used for Doors
Figure 87: Planks made out of Palm Trunk used for Doors

Rustic furniture has also been made though trunkwood, because of its coarse vascular structure, is difficult to cut, finish and polish. Furthermore the trunk was used extensively in the supporting strucures for water lifting be it in the Egyptian waterwheel, the Sakiyeh (318) or in the animal drawn water lifting from open wells. And finally, the trunks are also used as firewood.

b. leaves:

Every year under normal growth conditions an average of 12 to 15 new leaves are formed by the palm and consequently the same amount can be expected to be cut as part of the maintenance of the palm. Taken over hundreds or thousands of trees this can lead to large numbers of leaves becoming available annually.

Leaves offer the most varied end use opportunities which are discussed by the individual parts in which the leaf can be divided:

i. the leaf as a whole: whole leaves are used in fencing by sticking them into the ground and holding them together with two or three layers of rope made of the leaflets (Fig. 10), or in partitioning in houses and enclosures of terraces providing privacy but keeping a certain ventilation. Leaves are further used as roofing to give shade or for newly planted offshoots. Where mud is used in house construction whole date leaves may be laid across the ceiling beams (made of the trunk) in a thick bedding upon which a layer of mud is poured to form the first floor or roof cover (318).

Whole palm leaves further have a special meaning at Christian and Jewish religious festivals and the introduction of the date palm into South America has been attributed to the missionaries who carried along date seeds from the Old World in order to secure a supply of palm leaves for religious celebrations.

ii. midribs: the very base of the date leaf encircles the palm as a fibrous sheath and remains part of the trunk. When the leaf is cut off at a length dependent on the prevalent cultural practices, the base of the midrib is broad and flattened but quickly narrows from the base upwards into a more or less triangularly shaped stick which thins down towards the end of the leaf. Usually the leaf base is cut off and treated separately whilst the remaining "stick" (still called midrib to simplify nomenclature) when stripped of the spines and leaflets is used for different purposes. Soaked in water, straightened and set and held closely together by cross members pierced through them, midribs make effective building boards of about 50 x 200 cm, and used as partitioning or roofing (136).

Leaf bases sharpened at the thin end and hammered in a close pack have been used to line the walls of open wells when the usual brick or stone are not available (139). They were used by fishermen to float their nets and by the same principle helped children to learn to swim (445). The base can be split and beaten out with the resulting fibre mass being used as a hand broom. With a bit longer than the usual thin piece left on as a handle, the leaf base was used as a bat to densify mud walls by the mason (445). And, like other fibrous parts of the palm, leaf bases are particularly suited as a fuel.

The most widespread use of the midrib is making crates, but also furniture. There is a great variation in size and type of the containers, adapted to the specific purpose, but the principles of construction are basically the same, a short description of which is given below (Fig. 88) (189).

From the midribs of the preferred varieties (because there are quality differences), first the edges (where the pinnae were attached) are removed by a stripping knife (Fig. 88b), after which they are cut into pieces of standard lengths (Fig. 88c) and, since they are tapered, assembled in groups of about equal diameter. The smaller diameters are further smoothed and rounded for their intended use (Fig. 88d). The thicker lengths to be perforated are levelled in order to at least have two flat surfaces. After marking, the holes are perforated by a punch (driven in by a mallet) an operation in which both the operator's hands and feet actively and efficiently participate (Fig. 88e f). In assembling the crate the thinner rods are knocked down the holes making use of a flat thick piece of iron (Fig. 88g h), after which superfluous material is cut and trimmed by knife and file (318, 343).

Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib 
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib
Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib

Figure 88: Crate making from the Leaf Midrib

Starting from these basic operations and with increasing artisanal skills a wide variety of containers has emerged, from simple fruit crates, birdcages and chicken coops to double deck twin cages, sometimes with sliding doors, hung on a donkey's, or a camel's back to carry a wide variety of fowl and other produce to the market (Fig. 89a/b). For the more delicate products, e.g. fresh fruit or eggs, the crates may be lined with palm or other vegetable fibre, carton, or heavy brown paper. The art of crate making has extended to other domestic products like carrying boards, bottle racks and furniture, especially chairs and bedsteads.

Figure 89a: Examples of Crates. a. On Camel's Back

Figure 89a: Examples of Crates. a. On Camel's Back

Figure 89b.: For Fowl on Donkey's Back
Figure 89b.: For Fowl on Donkey's Back

It is clear from the above description that artisanal crate making is labour intensive and comparatively slow. With the changing economic patterns in most date producing countries including increased labour costs and scarcity, crate making has diminished. Some attempts have been made to mechanize some of the operations by mechanical levelling, smoothing and punching in central workshops and delivering the crates in kits to be assembled by the user thus saving transport costs. Though these measures may have had some impact they have not been able to stem the flow and use of modern packaging materials, plastics in particular. Nevertheless midribs do still play a role in the manufacture of crates and rustic furniture in the rural date producing centres.

Other uses of midribs have been reported such as a fibre source for rope making, as a staff, cane or fishing rod or as supports for grape vines and ripening date bunches (445). Besides serving as a direct fuel source when needed, midribs can also be turned into a light good quality charcoal (139).

iii. leaflets vary in length from about 15 to 100 cm and in breadth from 1 to 6 cm (139). The number of leaflets on one midrib may be in the range of 120 to 240.

Leaflets are mainly used in plaits which are sewn together in a wide array of baskets and sacks, but also mats and smaller articles like fans and hats. The fundamental technology for its most widespread use, baskets, is to plait the leaflets into strips of matting of considerable length which are coiled in a spiral and its edges sewn together with a thread made out of the same leaflets. For instance, for a common date basket with a bottom diameter of about 50 cm and 75 cm high, a plaited strip of about 10 cm width and 15 m length is needed (Fig. 90) (445). The finer the plaiting and the narrower the strips the more closely knit and sturdier baskets or bags can be made. For the most refined products fresh leaves just issuing from their protective cover on the palm and offering a less brittle, yet tough fibre, are used, but the supply of these fibres is necessarily limited (318). Next to the date basket, the carrying basket is a most common utensil both for private and professional uses. A common size for transport of earth, building materials or even, in a larger version, coal, is about 20 cm diameter at the bottom, widening to the top (in contrast to the date basket which narrows to the top), and 30 cm high. It will hold 30-36 kgs of earth or sand and needs reinforcement at the bottom and handles for a durable life span. These baskets are carried on the shoulder and through the ages a very large amount of material has been moved in this way. For private use, baskets or bags are often plaited with coloured leaflets to create colourful designs or reinforced with (brown) thread made of the fibre covering the frond base (sheath fibre, see later) (Fig. 91).

Figure 90: Baskets made of Plaited Leaflets containing about 300 kgs of Dates

Figure 90: Baskets made of Plaited Leaflets containing
about 300 kgs of Dates

 Figure 91: Variety of Hand Baskets made from Plaited Palm Leaflets on Sale in Local Market
Figure 91: Variety of Hand Baskets made from
Plaited Palm Leaflets on Sale in Local Market

Large-scale carrying baskets of an inverted cone shape slung over a camel's back and fitted with a valve at the bottom for easy discharge are used for longer distances, whilst donkeys almost disappear under the loads of fruits and vegetables by similarly shaped side baskets hung on their backs (318).

By a different technology but using the same raw materials, sturdy baskets, and vase shaped containers and trays are made. The technique consists of first forming cores of finely divided fibres of the date fruit stalk. These cores are laid in a spiral and wrapped over with shredded leaflets at the same time linking them with the former spiral. In this way all types of shapes can be given to the basket by the form in which the cores are laid. Lids are also made in this way, providing a vast array of baskets, vases and depository boxes (Fig. 92). Trays made in this way are used for many purposes in the house.

Figure 92: Containers for Domestic Use made out of Fibre of the Leaflets Wrapped around Cores Derived from Fibre cut off the Fruit Stalk 

Figure 92: Containers for Domestic Use made out of Fibre of the Leaflets Wrapped around Cores Derived from Fibre cut off the Fruit Stalk

Besides woven products, leaflets are also used for making cord which is used, for instance, for tying up bundles of nursery stock or other temporary fixing jobs in horticulture. In making it, the leaflets are shredded into strips of about 2-3 mm wide, soaked in water and twisted into cord by rolling the fibre between the palm of the hands into a strand. Usually a two-strand cord is made with a thickness of about 7 to 10 mm (318) (Fig 93).

A two-stand cordA hank of cord about 75 to 80 m long
Figure 93: Handmade Cord made of Shredded Date Leaflets.
a. A two-stand cord
A hank of cord about 75 to 80 m long

Handbrooms are made from the leaflets by arranging and tying them in flat bundles and the very young white pinnae shredded into fine fibre and bundled at one end serve as fly whisks. Leaflets are also used as bedding for animals.

A different use of palm leaflets is the use as a stuffing material for cushions and mattresses, although rated lower in quality than the widely used "Krena" (crin végétal) made from the dwarf palm (Algeria, Morocco). The process consists of drying the palm leaves on concrete floors, stripping the leaflets from the midrib, bundling them (about 15 cm diameter) and soaking these bundles in water. When softened they are put through a rippling machine which consists of a fast rotating drum with pins on its surface. The material comes out in fine threads. This material is dried (naturally) and baled, or turned into thick rope for further distribution. The quality of the material is determined by its elasticity and resistance to break under pressure. One ton of krena requires a supply of about 2,000 whole leaves.

iv. spines: they are specialized leaflets converted into tough pointed pins which may vary from very short to up to 20 cm in length and from very thin to 1 cm in width. Situated at the lower end of the midrib they have the obvious function of protecting the central tender parts of the palm. When leaves are harvested, spines normally have already been removed during preceding cultural practices to give the operator access to the central part of the tree. They can be used in the making of fishtraps and obviously, toothpicks or other uses where a sharp pointed utensil is needed. No reference has however been found that the spine is used as a sewing needle in basket making, which really would make the palm fully self sufficient in procuring packing material for its own produce.

v. sheath: New date palm leaves come out from a tender cover tissue which upon growth of the leaf remains at its base attached to its lateral edges, and surrounding the trunk of the palm. The connective tissue has gone and a brownish fibrous sheath is left which, when pruning the leaves, can be torn loose and is known under the name of leef. Apart from its fuel value it is best known for the many types of rope made from it. The raw material has the appearance of a coarsely woven fabric (Fig. 94).

Figure 94: Sheath Fibre from the Leaf Base as it comes from the Palm. 
Figure 94: Sheath Fibre from the Leaf Base as it comes from the Palm in detail

Figure 94: Sheath Fibre from the Leaf Base as it comes from the Palm
(a) and in detail (b).

Manufacture follows the usual pattern from purely manual rope making to the use of simple machines. The product is rather coarse (somewhat like coir) but has sufficient strength to "hold ships together" (445) as was practised in the past when no nails were available. Rope of different diameters is frequently used in waterlifting. It is also made into nets with a mesh of about 20 cm for carrying (heavy) loads of coarse materials by camel or transporting forage and the coarser vegetables on a donkey's back (Fig. 95).

Figure 95: Nets made out of Sheath Fibre Cordage for Transport 

Figure 95: Nets made out of Sheath Fibre Cordage for Transport

In lighter versions rope is used for binding, tying, handles and reinforcement of baskets, muzzles, fishnets, etc.(Fig. 96). The leef as such is used for protecting newly planted offshoots, padding, upholstering, washcloths, brushes, bedding and shading live plants and produce.

 Figure 96:    Several Types of Cordage made of Sheath Fibre in Local Market Egypt)
Figure 96: Several Types of Cordage made of Sheath Fibre in
Local Market Egypt)

c. reproductive organs: Male flowers, being the first to mature, and for a short period not yet required for pollination, are sometimes consumed by the farmer (17). The male flowers have been also used to distill a scent from it called Tara water (136). Pollen is reportedly ingested to enhance fertility (128). What remains after the annual reproductive cycle has ended with harvesting of the dates, are the spathes, the fruit stalks and spikelets of the female tree and some spathes and flower stalks of the male palms, because the latter are much less in number than the female palms.

i. spathes: the initially green and tender shields that enclose the male and female flowers turn tough and fibrous at the end of the annual production cycle. After pollination male spathes are removed and pieces are sometimes chewed by the farmer or soaked in drinking water to improve its flavour (343). Spathe can also be boiled and distilled resulting in a liquid used for flavouring hot or cold drinks and is also effective as a digestive (343). More recently spathe extracts have been investigated for possible special properties (see later).

ii. empty bunches: are composed of the fruit stalk with concentrated on one end the spikelets to which the dates were attached. With the spikelets trimmed down the bunch as a whole may serve as a simple broom. Secondly it has, like the other fibrous parts of palm a fuel value. Having had to carry a considerable weight of ripening dates through the season (indeed in some date varieties the bunch has to be artifically supported for fear of breakage) it stands to reason that the fruit stalks must have notable tensile strength. Also because the fibre is long, fruit stalks are quite often preferred over other palm fibre for work where safety is a first requirement such as in climbers' ropes and belts, and saddle girths. Making rope from the fruit stalks involves wetting (perhaps soaking) to soften the stalk somewhat, after which it is hammered with a broad-faced iron hammer to loosen the fibre, especially the basal end. After this, in vertical position and holding the upper end of the stalk with the spikelets with his foot, the operator will strip the fibre bundles by hand starting from the basal end of the stalk.

The thinner the strands are made at this stage the finer and stronger rope can ultimately be made. With the fibre strips thus harvested the normal rope making procedures will start, i.e. making strands out of a number of strips, twisting two strands into one cord and subsequently twisting three cords into one rope. A typical climbing rope is 2.5 m long and 2 to 2.5 cm in diameter (Fig. 97).

Figure 97: Heavy Rope made from Shredded Date Palm Fruit Stalks

Figure 97: Heavy Rope made from Shredded
Date Palm Fruit Stalks

To make a broad climbing belt to give more support to the back of the climber a 3 ply cord (5-7 mm) is laid out flat and folded back and forth in 16 to 20 parallel lines each about 110 cm in length. These parallels are then stitched together crosswise. With a secure splicing technique the climbing rope is secured tightly to the belt at one end. At the other end of the belt the doubled loops are assembled in one single loop through which the climber will knot the loose end of his rope after having passed it around the palm trunk (318). There are several techniques to climb a palm with the help of rope; from a safe tucked-in position in a belt (Fig. 98a) to the more daring and quicker technique of using the rope only as a hand support and throwing it intermittently about one metre upwards whilst stepping up the palm (Fig. 98b).

Climbing the Palm in-the-belt position.
Figure 98: Climbing the Palm.
a.: in-the-belt position
b.: Use of climbing rope only
Climbing the Palm use of climbing rope only.


Other uses of the fruitstalks are as decoration for the ceilings in the home (363), the spikelets are eaten by camels and the stalk fibre frequently used as coarse sewing thread and as the cores for special types of basket making described in b.iii.

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