Young date palms have simple, narrow leaves, much like grass. Source: Rachel Berner
Question: About 2 years ago, I planted a seed from a date imported from Morocco and it sprouted! Now it has several leaves. Will it flower and produce dates some day?
Rachel Bernier, Canada
Answer: First of all, you were lucky it sprouted. These days, most dates sold are pitted and contain no seed. And those that are not pitted may have been irradiated so the fruit keeps better, but that kills the seed inside. So, you always need to find a source of organic, unpitted dates. Perhaps a local health food store offers them.
And you have to realize that dates come from a tall palm tree, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), that is many years from producing flowers and fruits and will likely never flower indoors.
Yours is still a seedling, with undivided leaves much like a grass, but as your plant matures, it will start to produce longer and longer pinnate fronds (eventually up to 20 feet/6 m long!) that will take up a lot of space in your home. So, it can make an interesting houseplant, but only for a few years, then it becomes too big. I kept one 12 years once, but finally had to admit defeat and gave it to a friend with a large sunroom … when it again became too big and was eventually disposed of.
Supposing you have a tall greenhouse, plenty of space and full sun (the date palm is a desert plant and likes its sun intense!) and it finally does start to flower. To obtain fruit, you’d still need at least two palms, a male and a female, as date palms are dioecious, with male and female flowers borne on different plants. And you’d have to hand pollinate to ensure fruit production.
Of course, if you move to a hot, dry climate (date palm flowers needs temperatures around 95? F/35’C for successful pollination to occur), you could grow the palm outdoors. Dates are usually raised commercially under desert-like conditions (think “oasis”), with the Middle East and North Africa, where the palm is native, being the world’s main suppliers of dates. In North America, there are only a few successful plantations in Arizona and California and although it’s possible to grow date palms to fruition in Australia, the industry is just getting started there.
How to Sow Dates
So, nobody is likely to grow a true date palm forever as an indoor plant, but starting one can still be an interesting project. Harvest and clean a few of the deeply grooved seeds from untreated, unpitted dates and pot them up in somewhat moist soil in a warm spot. No light is needed until after germination, which will likely take place within a month.
Grow the seedlings in full sun after that, offering warm to hot temperatures and regular watering. Pot up into larger and pots as they grow. Watch out for the nasty spines at the base of the fronds as they develop. By the time you see even the beginning of a trunk (stipe), your baby date palm will likely be too big and you’ll need to dispose of it.
Pygmy Date Palm
Might I suggest that, if you’re looking for a houseplant date palm, trying a pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelinii) instead? It’s available in most garden centers, is small enough to fit into the average home (it rarely reaches more than 6 to 9 feet/2 to 3 m tall, with fronds only 2 to 4 feet/60 to 120 cm in length, even after decades of culture) and tolerates average indoor conditions, including moderate light, better than the true date palm. Seed is available online if you want to grow a pygmy date from seed, but you’d be years from having a palm with a trunk, so purchasing an already established plant is usually the wiser choice.