Date Palms are in the Phoenix genus of palm trees in the Arecaceae family.
While they are as tall as trees, they are more closely related to grasses than any tree species.
Only the True Date Palm produces large fruits that are grown for fruit production. While the other date palms produce edible fruits, they are smaller and have thinner flesh, so they are rarely eaten, but the birds love them!
There are at least 400 varieties of edible date palms around the world, but only a few dozen are grown commercially.
Other date palms make great landscape trees with a lovely tropical feel. Species that grow from as little as 3 ft to as much as 85 ft tall are available.
Let’s look at the identifying characteristics of date palms and examine some of the different types of date palm trees available around the world.
Date Palm Tree Identification (With Photos)
According to PalmWeb.org, the authoritative source for information on palm trees, there are 14 accepted species in the Phoenix genera.
They all share some common characteristics, and sometimes, they can be difficult to distinguish from each other. Let’s examine their similarities and differences.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Pinnately Divided Leaves
Date Palms are “feather-type” palm trees that describe their feather-like leaves that are pinnately divided into numerous leaf segments, sometimes incorrectly referred to as leaflets.
Palms do not have compound leaves like other plants with pinnate leaves because their leaves start as a single whole leaf.
The whole leaf is easily visible only when they are still seedlings. Adult leaves always shred into uniform leaf segments by the time they finish unfurling, so they only appear to be a compound leaf with numerous leaflets.
The central stalk of the feather-like leaf is often called a rachis, a term used to describe the stalk to which the leaflets of a compound leaf would attach. In the case of date palms and other pinnate palms, it is probably more correctly referred to as a midrib since it is not a true compound leaf, but both terms are frequently used.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Induplicate Leaf Segments
The pinnate leaves of the date palm genus are unique in that the leaf segments are induplicate or V-shaped in cross-section in the upward direction. This is where a V-shaped channel points upward on the top of the leaf. An easy way to remember this is “water in – induplicate” because this leaf will catch and channel water in this V.
This is uncommon in the palm family, so it makes it easy to identify a feather-like palm as a date palm when this feature is seen.
Most feather-type palms tend to have reduplicate segments that are V-shaped in the downward direction instead. This is where the channel is open on the lower side of the leaf and would not collect any water since the fold or keel of the leaf is facing up and would repel water.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Armed Petioles
A petiole is a leaf stalk that attaches the entire pinnately divided leaf to the crown of the tree.
The petioles of date palms are armed with spines at the base of the leaf segments. These spines are made of modified leaves and are always located on the base of the rachis or midrib just below the leaf segments.
Spines vary in length from about 2” to up to 12” in the Canary Island Date Palm. The spines are very sharp and should be approached with caution.
These spines are also a bit unique in the palm family. Many other palms, feather-like and fan palms, also have armed petioles, but they tend to have more tooth-like spines rather than the long thin leaf-like spines of date palms.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Trunks
Date Palms may have single or multi-trunked forms. Multi-trunked varieties form from suckering from the main stem. They are often referred to as clumping or clustering palms.
Date Palms can vary significantly in the height and width of their trunks.
Some trunks grow only to 10 ft tall, while others can grow up to 85 ft or even taller. And the Dwarf Date Palm is trunkless or, at most, has a trunk of only a few inches tall.
Some date palms, particularly clumping forms, have slender trunks that may be only a few inches wide. The Canary Island Date Palm has a very thick trunk that can get up to 3 ft wide.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Leaf Scars
Date Palms are not self-cleaning, meaning that when the leaves die, they will remain attached to the trunk for up to several years.
The leaf bases will eventually rot off on their own, leaving characteristic diamond-shaped leaf scars that may be large and knobby in the True Date Palm or more rough and flattened in other species.
Their trunks will never be smooth like some feather palms that are self-cleaning.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Flowering and Inflorescences
All date palms are dioecious trees meaning that they have separate male and female flowers on separate trees.
This means you must have both a male and a female tree to produce fruits. With only one tree, they will still flower, but fruits will never be produced.
Pollen from male trees is distributed both by wind and insects or sometimes it is done manually in commercial orchards in order to guarantee sizeable crops.
Hybridization occurs frequently among all Phoenix species. For this reason, if trees are being grown for date production, no other Phoenix species can be nearby, or fewer, smaller, and inferior dates will be produced.
Female flowers tend to be more numerous on longer inflorescences (groups of flowers on a main stalk) up to around 4 ft long, which are almost always pendulous.
Male inflorescences tend to have fewer, more rounded flowers, and their inflorescences are much shorter, usually under 1 ft, and are often erect but sometimes can be pendulous.
The individual flowers are small and typically very high in the trees, so the use of individual flowers in identification is limited.
Identifying Date Palm Trees by Their Fruits
Date Palms all produce drupes for fruits on their female trees.
Drupes are fleshy or dry fruits with a central stony pit that contains the seed.
Drupes may be small, a ¼” or so, or large at up to 2” long.
They vary in color, starting from green when immature and maturing to yellow, brown, tan, reddish-brown, purplish, or nearly black.
The fruit of dates may be semi-dry or fleshy. Only the semi-dry and fleshy dates that are large in size are generally eaten by humans, but birds thoroughly enjoy all the others.
8 Different Types of Date Palms & Their Identifying Features
1. True Date Palm – Phoenix dactylifera
True Date Palm is the only species that is used for the commercial production of fruits (dates). While other species can be eaten, none are as large, sweet, and delicious as these.
This tree has been cultivated for many thousands of years, and hundreds of cultivars are now available worldwide.
The exact origin of the tree is unknown, but it is thought to be from Persia or northern Africa.
A tree takes about 10 years to begin producing fruit and will produce up to 150 – 300 lbs of dates from a female tree in one season.
Since they are dioecious trees with separate male and female trees, at least one of each tree is needed for fruit production.
It is relatively cold hardy, drought tolerant, and tolerates dry, inland desert heat better than other date palms.
Trees are susceptible to Fusarium infections which can be lethal.
Identifying Features of the True Date Palm
Date Palm is usually a single-trunk tree, but multi-stemmed specimens occur naturally, although the suckers are typically removed when grown commercially.
It is a medium-sized tree, shorter than the Canary Island Date Palm, with a smaller crown of leaves that are more gray-green or sometimes blue-green in color (especially in hot climates).
Leaves are feather-like, pinnately divided, with induplicate leaf segments, and armed with leaf-like spines near the base.
The trunk typically has a knobby appearance from the diamond-shaped leaf scars left behind after pruning.
It is a dioecious tree, requiring a male and a female tree in order to produce fruits.
Female flowers are greenish in pendulous inflorescences up to 4 ft long. Male flowers are larger, rounded, more whitish, and in shorter inflorescences to 0.8 ft long.
Fruits are cylindrical drupes 1 – 2” long, fleshy, yellowish-brown to reddish-brown, sweet, and edible.
Other Common Names: Date Palm, True Date
Native Area: Uncertain due to early cultivation, but thought to be North Africa and/or the Middle East.
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
2. Barhi Date Palm – Phoenix dactylifera ‘Barhi’
Barhi Date Palms are also called Honey Date Palm because of their fruits’ sweet flavor and honey-like color.
Their fruits are mostly eaten fresh and can be eaten at any stage of ripeness, with different flavors at each stage. They are said to taste like fresh sugar cane (semi-ripe), coconut (fully ripe), and then butterscotch (dried).
The photo above shows the semi-ripe stage, where they are crunchy with mild sweetness and some astringency.
Barhi Date Palms are grown for fruit production as well as for ornamental trees.
They can be grown in tropical, subtropical, desert, or Mediterranean climates in USDA zones 8 – 11.
Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil with a neutral pH.
Identifying Features of the Barhi Date Palm
Barhi Date Palm is a shorter palm than Phoenix dactylifera, typically never growing more than 30 ft tall.
Trunks are patterned with the type species’ characteristic knobby diamond-shaped leaf scarring.
The evergreen crown of leaves is a dense and rich green. The leaves are pinnately divided with induplicate leaf segments.
The petioles are armed with leaf-like spines located below the leaf segments.
The dates are shorter and a bit rounder than Medjool and more golden than brown.
Other Common Names: Barhee Date Palm, Honey Date Palm, Banshee Date Palm
Origin: Cultivar from southern Iraq, named after the city of Barhi, where it came from.
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 30 ft tall, 10 – 12 ft spread
3. Deglet Noor Date Palm – Phoenix dactylifera ‘Deglet Noor’
Deglet Noor Date Palm is one of the most commonly grown date palms in the US for its fruit production and its ornamental value.
It is an old cultivar that originated back in the 1600s in the Algerian Sahara.
Once mature, it can produce 200 – 300 lbs of fruits per season on a female tree.
Fruits are great for eating and cooking with because they are semi-dry and easier to cut and dice than softer Medjool varieties.
The trees are dioecious, so a male and a female tree are needed for fruit production.
It is a medium to tall palm tree growing 40 – 80 ft tall with a dense canopy of rich green feather-like leaves.
Best grown in full sun in well-drained, deep, neutral, sandy loam soil. It is intolerant of wet soils or acidic soils.
It is a hybrid between the True Date Palm and the Cretan Date Palm.
Identifying Features of the Deglet Noor Date Palm
Deglet Noor Date Palm is a medium or tall-sized date palm growing to 80 ft tall.
Trunks have characteristic knobby diamond-shaped leaf scars left after pruning.
The crown is loose, with fewer leaves per tree than many other varieties.
Leaves are pinnately divided with silvery blue-green induplicate leaf segments.
Each leaf can grow up to 15 ft long and 2 ft wide, and they have petioles armed with long spines made from modified leaves.
Fruits are semi-dry, with a thicker exterior that is dryer and not as sweet as the Medjool variety. They are also a little darker and smaller.
Other Common Names: N/A
Origin: Algerian Sahara near Touggourt in the 1600s.
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
4. Medjool Date Palm – Phoenix dactylifera ‘Medjool’
Medjool Date Palms are known for their abundant leaves lending themselves to a thick, lush canopy.
They are also known for their very large, soft, sweet dates that some consider to be the best commercial date.
They perform best in tropical and subtropical climates with low rainfall when it comes to fruit production, where they can produce two or even three crops per year.
The fruits from these trees are also the most expensive because they are more labor-intensive to grow and harvest.
It is often grown more as an ornamental in cooler climates in its range.
It has good drought tolerance, salt tolerance, and resistance to pests.
This tree is a hybrid between True Date Palms and the Cretan Date Palm Phoenix theophrasti.
Identifying Features of the Medjool Date Palm
Medjool Date Palm is a medium-sized palm tree with the characteristic knobby diamond-shaped leaf scar pattern left on its trunk.
The canopy has more leaves than most date palms producing a rich, lush crown.
Leaves are silvery green to green, pinnately divided, with induplicate leaf segments. They are 13 – 20 ft long with about 150 1 – 2 ft long leaflets per leaf.
The petiole is armed with 3 – 4” long spines made from modified leaves.
Fruits are larger than most, oblong, soft, fleshy, medium to dark brown, and very sweet.
Other Common Names: Medjewel Palm, Medjool Palm, Phoenix Medjool Palm
Origin: All Medjool Dates are traced back to a single oasis in Morocco, where they have since been wiped out by disease.
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 60 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
5. Canary Island Date Palm – Phoenix canariensis
The Canary Island Date Palm is the largest of the Phoenix genus growing up to 85 ft tall with an often very thick trunk.
It is a very popular ornamental plant worldwide.
Due to its large size, do not plant it next to structures where it may not have enough room to grow.
Fusarium Wilt is a problem with this tree. It spreads by wind, birds, insects, and infected pruning equipment.
It is quite cold-hardy for a palm. It is also fairly heat-resistant and drought-tolerant.
It takes well to growing in a pot and can be grown outdoors in zone 4 – 8 and brought indoors for the winter.
Unlike most date palms, It will tolerate partial shade.
They tend to grow in dense clusters of plants, excluding light below them and out-competing native plants. It has made the invasive species lists in parts of North America and Australia.
Identifying Features of the Canary Island Date Palm
Canary Island Date Palm is the tallest of the Phoenix genus reaching 85 ft tall (or more).
The thick trunk is solitary, brown, up to 3 ft wide, and is covered with diamond-shaped leaf scars that are narrower, rougher, and not knobby like the Date Palm.
It has a full crown of 75 – 125 or more long, pinnate leaves 15 ft or more in length. Each leaf has 80 – 100 dark green to bluish-green forward-pointing leaf segments on each side of the rachis.
Its petiole spines are longer than other Phoenix at up to 1 ft long.
Leaves are flat, less plumose, and darker green than the Date Palm.
Flowers are yellowish or orange in large erect (male) or pendulous (female) inflorescences.
Fruits are small yellow or orange drupes 0.4” long with thin flesh. The fruit is edible but not especially sweet or flavorful.
Other Common Names: Pineapple Palm, palmera canaria (Spanish), Canary Date Palm, and Canary Island Palm.
Native Area: Originally endemic to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 11 outdoors, 4 – 8 patio
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 65 ft (to 85 ft or rarely 131 ft) tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees
6. Pygmy Date Palm – Phoenix roebellenii
The Pygmy Date Palm is popular for its small size and easy growth.
In its native habitat, it is a clustering palm, producing suckers with thinner trunks. In cultivation, it typically grows only as a single-trunk plant.
In contrast to most palm species, this one, in its native habitat, is a rheophyte – a plant that grows in fast-moving water. Its clustering habit is believed to help it survive flooding. This adaptation makes it the most water-tolerant of the date palms.
It has a full crown of soft-looking leaves, but its large spines make it unsuitable for planting near walkways.
Best grown in full sun in well-drained soil.
It can be grown indoors, but direct sunlight must be provided or supplemented with a full spectrum grow light. Regular pruning will also be required.
It is only mildly drought-tolerant, and in hot desert areas, some protection from the sun may be necessary.
Identifying Features of the Pygmy Date Palm
Pygmy Date Palm is a small clustering or single-trunk palm that may grow stemless offshoots from its main trunk.
Trunks are thin, usually 3 – 5” wide, with the diamond-shaped leaf scars typical of its genus.
It produces 2 – 5” long spines at the base of its leaves.
Leaves are pinnately divided, up to 6.6 ft long, with about 100 narrow leaf segments less than ½” wide that are gray-green and drooping with scurfy hairs on their lower surface.
Small pale yellow flowers appear on relatively short 1.5 ft long inflorescences followed by small purplish-brown drupes.
Its smaller size, narrow gray-green leaf segments, and small purple-brown drupes will help differentiate it from most other date palms in its genus.
Other Common Names: Dwarf Date Palm, Miniature Date Palm, Robellinii Palm
Native Area: Southeast Asia in South China, Laos, Vietnam
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 11 outdoors, 4 – 11 patio
Average Size at Maturity: 5 – 10 ft (to 23 ft) tall, 5 – 8 ft spread
Available at: Fast-Growing-Trees
7. Dwarf Date Palm – Phoenix acaulis
Dwarf Date Palm, like the Pygmy Date Palm above, is a small palm tree. However, this palm is essentially trunkless, having a very short single trunk.
Most of its trunk is subterranean, where they grow underground in search of water since they naturally adapt to very arid climates.
Its small size makes it suitable for smaller gardens, and its drought tolerance makes it suitable for xeriscaping (learn how to establish your xeriscape tree here).
The fruit is small, thin, and edible but rarely eaten by humans.
It is one of the rare date palms that performs well in either full sun or partial shade.
Best grown in any well-drained neutral to slightly alkaline soil.
Identifying Features of the Dwarf Date Palm
The Dwarf Date Palm is a stemless palm with subterranean stems that seek out water in arid climates. Occasionally it may have a short stem to only a few inches tall.
It has a thick crown of pinnately divided leaflets that are gray-green, about 5 ft long, with 16 – 24 0.8 ft long leaf segments on each side of the rachis.
Petioles are armed with sharp spines just below the leaf segments.
When the leaves die, the leaf bases are persistent at the base of the plant.
Inflorescences are short and visible at ground level.
Fruits are narrow drupes about 0.6” long that ripen from green and scarlet to blue-black.
Other Common Names: Stemless Date Palm
Native Area: India, northern Nepal, Bhutan
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 3 – 6.6 ft tall, 3 – 6.6 ft spread
8. Cretan Date Palm – Phoenix theophrasti
The Cretan Date Palm is one of the only two palms that are native to continental Europe, along with the Mediterranean Dwarf Palm.
It is mostly found in southern Greece, Turkey, and the island of Crete.
Its limited distribution and habitat loss have it listed as Near Threatened in the wild.
It is a low-maintenance clumping palm and the most cold-hardy of the date palms, thriving quite well in USDA Zone 8.
It can also be grown in a pot on a patio down to USDA Zone 4 and brought inside for the winter.
Genetic analysis has shown that the popular commercially grown Medjool and Deglet Noor dates are actually hybrids of Phoenix dactylifera and Phoenix theophrasti.
The fruits are small with thin, fibrous flesh that is not especially sweet, so they are seldom eaten by humans.
Best grown in full sun in any well-drained soil.
Identifying Features of the Cretan Date Palm
Cretan Date Palm is a medium-sized tree growing up to 50 ft tall, and it usually has several slender, clustering stems.
Pinnately divided feather-like leaves are 6.5 – 10 ft long with numerous rigid silvery-gray or grayish-green leaf segments 6 – 20” long.
The trunks are slender and have dead leaves that remain for years. Its genus’s characteristic diamond-shaped leaf scars are visible once the leaves fall off or are manually removed.
Fruits are in erect pendulous clusters of ovoid yellowish-brown drupes 0.6” long with thin, fibrous flesh that is not especially sweet.
It is similar to the true Date Palm but more compact, with silvery-gray spiky leaves, clustering trunks, and erect rather than pendulous fruit clusters.
Other Common Names: N/A
Native Area: Eastern Mediterranean in Crete, Greece, and Turkey.
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 10 outdoors, 4 – 8 patio
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 50 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
Dazzling Date Palms
Growing Date Palms in Your Garden
Date Palms are dioecious trees, having separate male and female flowers on separate male and female trees.
Therefore, If you are growing them for fruit production, you must have both a male and female tree in order to produce fruit.
It takes 4 – 8 years to bear fruit, with viable commercial harvesting beginning around 7 – 10 years after planting.
Note that all Phoenix species hybridize readily, so if you want date production, you cannot have any other Phoenix species nearby, or the cross-pollination will produce inferior dates.
Date Palms are relatively easy to grow if your climate is right for them. Most do well in USDA Zones 9 – 11, with some growing well into Zone 8.
Most date palms tolerate heat very well and thrive in hot, desert areas, provided that they are given a little irrigation once every couple of weeks during the summer and once a month in the winter.
Most do not tolerate very rainy climates in any zone.
If you live in a climate colder than USDA Zone 8, a handful of species can still be grown on your patio in a pot and brought indoors in the winter. But none of those will produce fruits.
If you are unsure what planting zone you are in, check out USDA Planting Zones to find out your zone.
Most date palms are not picky about soil type provided it is well drained. Sandy loams are preferred.
They prefer neutral soils and will tolerate alkaline soils. They typically do not perform well in acidic soils.
Date palms are drought-tolerant once established; some can be grown without irrigation. However, fruit production trees will require some irrigation.
None, other than the Pygmy Date Palm, will tolerate wet feet of any kind. The soil must be very well-drained.
Most date palms should only be planted in full sun. If you are growing fruit-producing trees, they should only be planted in full sun. A couple of species will tolerate partial shade.
Fertilize your trees lightly each winter, particularly if yours are for fruit production.
Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot in your yard.
Dates are often thinned and covered before ripening to allow the remaining dates to grow larger and protect them from weather, birds, and other animals that will eat them.
Dates turn brown or brownish and start to wrinkle when they are mature. They often mature at different times, so that multiple harvests may be necessary.
Once mature, they are hand-picked from the tree one at a time by gently pulling on them. If they are mature, they will easily pop off the pedicels (stalks).
Fusarium Wilt is a lethal fungal infection caused by Fusarium oxysporum that can be problematic for date palms.
The fungus destroys the vascular tissues of the palm, leading to a decrease in water uptake that results in wilting and, eventually, death.
Wind, insects, birds, and infected pruning equipment all spread Fusarium Wilt. Always disinfect your equipment before and after pruning.
Once an infected tree is discovered, it usually must be sacrificed to prevent it from spreading to other trees.
Interesting Facts About Date Palms
There is archaeological evidence of date cultivation in Mehrgarh, a Neolithic civilization in western Pakistan, from around 7000 BCE and in eastern Arabia around 5400 BCE.
The leaves of date palms were used in Ancient Rome to symbolize victory (most likely Phoenix dactylifera).
Dates are mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible and the Quran. The leaves are used for Palm Sunday in Christian religions.
Dates were introduced into California by the Spanish in 1769 and in Mexico around the 16th century.
Dates, on average, contain 21% water, 75% carbohydrates (63% sugars and 8% dietary fiber), 2% protein, and less than 1% fat. They also contain small amounts of Vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, and potassium.
The Judean date palm is famous for its long-lived seed, which successfully sprouted after accidental storage for 2,000 years. It is not known how long their seeds can remain viable.
Human Uses of Date Palms
Date Palms are used as ornamental trees worldwide and for fruit production in tropical and subtropical climates.
In 2020, 9 million tonnes of dates were produced worldwide, mostly by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Algeria.
Dates are delicious sweet snacks that are often used in baking and cooking.
Date seeds are soaked, ground up, and used as a coffee substitute or fed to animals. If dried, it can be used as a substitute for flour.
Stripped infructescences (fruit-bearing stalks) are used as brooms and are used ornamentally.
Leaves of date palms are used for making huts, mats, screens, baskets, and fans.
Dried leaf petioles are used for cellulose, walking sticks, brooms, fishing floats, and fuel.
Fibre from leaf sheaths is used for rope, coarse cloth, and hats.
Young leaves are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The terminal bud or heart is also eaten, but this kills the tree.
Floral buds are also edible and used in salad or ground with dried fish to make a condiment that is eaten with bread.
Wildlife Values Date Palm Trees Provide
Date palms provide structural diversity in tropical and subtropical forests around the world.
The trees provide shelter for birds, arboreal animals, and countless invertebrates.
Fruits of all Phoenix species are loved by birds especially, but other animals, such as monkeys and any others who can reach the tasty fruits, will also eat them.
Date Palms are such beautiful and sometimes delicious trees with such an elegant tropical feel to dazzle the senses. I hope you have enjoyed learning about this interesting group of palm trees.
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.