DATES, MELONS, SORGHUM AND OTHER DESERT CROPS

DESERT CROPS

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bag of millet
Crops grown in the desert include watermelons, apples, green onions, cucumbers, corn, hot peppers, melons, bell peppers, radishes, carrots, cabbage, soybeans, pears, tomatoes, squash and spinach.

Many farmers raise alfalfa as feed for their animals. It uses four times as much water as wheat. But wheat is also wasteful because so much of the plant ends up as straw.

Websites and Resources on Deserts: United States Geological Survey usgs.gov/gip/deserts ; Desert USA (good info on the world’s deserts); desertusa.com/life ; United Nations Global Desert Outlook unep.org/geo/gdoutlook ; Desert Biome article, University of California, Berkeley Desert Biome ; Blue Planet Biomes (about U.S. deserts) blueplanetbiomes.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;National Geographic online article National Geographic Oxfam Cool Planet oxfam.org.uk/coolplanet ; Sand Dunes article waynesword.palomar.edu ; United States Geological Survey usgs.gov/gip/deserts

Dates

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date palms
Dates are the fruit of a desert palm tree. There are 220 kinds of dates, or which about 20 are commercially viable. A popular food in the Middle East, they and found in abundance in the desert and around oases. Many parts of the Middle East would be uninhabitable were it not for date palms. It is one of the few crops that grows in the desert. Date palms have been described as the “tree of life.”

Date palms are highly valued because they provide abundant food in a very harsh place. The trees grow very large; produce fruit for a long time; and can survive long droughts and extremely high temperatures. According to an old Egyptian saying "A date palm is the only creation of God that resembles man. Unlike other trees, a date palm gives more as it grows older."

Dates are among the earliest crops known. They have been cultivated around the Tigres and Euphrates in Mesopotamia since at least 2000 B.C. The Virgin Mary munched on dates when she was pregnant. Dates have been traditionally eaten by Muslims to break their fast during Ramadan. The Koran contains 18 references, most of them good.

The Middle East is the source of two thirds of the world’s dates. The major date producers are Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The center of the date industry in the United States is Indio California, about 130 miles from Los Angeles. The first date trees were imported here from Algeria in 1900.

Websites and Resources: Date Palm Tree datepalmtree.net ; Wayne’s World /waynesword.palomar.edu ; Red Palm Weevil redpalmweevil.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;

Dates as Food

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Dates
Dates are a kernel surrounded by a fleshy pulp. Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, they keep for months without refrigeration; are used as a laxative and a treatment for weak stomachs; and have “slow-burn” and “fast-burn” sugar like those found in energy drinks. Good dates are eaten locally or packaged in factories and often shipped abroad; the poor ones are fed to cattle. Camels eat the pits.

In the Arab world dried dates are nibbled as finger food whole sipping cardamom-flavored coffee. In Middle Eastern souks you can find them prepared in hundreds of different ways. Palm sap, sometimes called logmi, is consumed in drinks and variety of food. Honey-like date syrup is made by mashing fresh dates to a pulp and straining the mash through cheesecloth. It is popular in the Middle East. There are even factories that produce date flakes as a breakfast food.

Date palms have been the traditional staple of the Bedouin diet. They are harvested from palm trees and dried out in the sun and stored for the wintertime when they supply food for a family as well assist herds of camels, goats and sheep. Bedouin could go for months, subsisting on nothing but dates and water. ☼

Date palms provide valuable shade as well as food. The trunks and leaves of date palm tree are burned for fuel and used in the construction of houses, bridges that cross canals, grids and fences. Elastic fibers that cover the trunks are made camel and horse saddles. The parts of the leafstalk are used as trowels by mason and as beaters by washerwomen. Mats and basks are made with stalks.

Date Palms

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date palm fruit
Date palm trees reach a height of 100 feet. They have strong straight trunks that looks like they are covered with bumpy scales. The leaves are feather-shaped and can reach a length of 12 to 18 feet in length. About 12 or 20 leaves are grown each year. They remain alive for several years before turning brown and dropping off.

Dates palms are divided into male trees with staminate blossoms and female trees with pistillate blossoms. In the wild the wind carries the pollen from the male blossom to the female blossom. In cultivated areas sprays of male blossoms are tied to the female flower clusters.

Dates are seeds Each pistallate flower cluster produces a bunch of dates weighing 10 to 40 pounds. Large trees can produce between 8 to 12 bunches at a time and up 600 pounds of fruit a year. . The dates are very sweet and they have traditionally attracted birds which eat them and disperse the seeds. Temperatures have to be above 16̊C for a tree to produce fruit.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Egypt, 415702 , 1326133; 2) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 315478 , 1006406; 3) Saudi Arabia, 309081 , 986000; 4) United Arab Emirates, 217861 , 755000; 5) Pakistan, 213193 , 680107; 6) Algeria, 173275 , 552765; 7) Iraq, 121099 , 476318; 8) Sudan, 105325 , 336000; 9) Oman, 77574 , 255871; 10) China, 42318 , 135000; 11) Tunisia, 35826 , 127000; 12) Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 31347 , 150000; 13) Yemen, 17304 , 55204; 14) Morocco, 15067 , 72700; 15) Qatar, 6759 , 21564; 16) Mauritania, 6018 , 19200; 17) Chad, 5736 , 18300; 18) Israel, 5666 , 18078; 19) United States of America, 5374 , 17146; 20) Niger, 5200 , 16589;

Palms

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harvesting dates
Palms grow primarily in tropical areas but are also found in the highlands of the Himalayas and the Andes, in mangrove swamps and in the desert. Members of a diverse plant group that also includes grasses and orchids, they range in height from six inches to 200 feet. Some palms are trees. Some are bushes. Rattan palms, which grow as a vine, can reach lengths of 600 feet or more.

Palm trees do not branch. They generate all their growth from a huge bud at the apex of the tree, which is called the palm heart. It produces leaf after leaf as the plant grows. The palm heart is often very tasty and animals like to eat it. If something happens to it the plant can die. Many palms have sharp spines for protection.

Palm trunk have a pith center but no bark or growth rings. Leaves called fonds fan out from a crown at the top. Some leaves are 30 to 45 feet long and 4 to 8 feet wide. African raffia palms have the world’s largest leaves, reaching 75 feet in length.

Palms bear flowers and fruit. The fruits have hard kernels containing tiny germs. Some kernels, such as dates, are surrounded by a fleshy pulp. The world’s largest seed, a double coconut from the Seychelles, comes from a palm. Most palms begin flowering when they five or six and mature when they are 10 to 15 years old. Some palms live 150 years or more.

Palm tree trunks are used in the construction of houses, boats and bridges that cross canals. They are used to make grids and fences. Elastic fibers that the cover the trunks are used to make camel and horse saddles. Parts of the leafstalk are used as trowels by mason and as beaters by washerwomen. Mats, plates and baskets are made with stalks. Among the other things made with palms are dye, paper, surfboards, and wax.

Date Cultivation

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Dates on date palm
Dates are the biggest oasis and desert cash crop. They are harvested from palm trees and dried out in the sun and stored for the wintertime when they supply food for a family as well assist herds of camels, goats and sheep. Date forests have been tended by the same family for generations. There are high transportation costs to get dates from oasis to ports where they can be shipped.

Date palms grow fairly well in high akali and salty soil and water and require little maintenance. They are grown from shoots and usually begin bearing fruit within four to eight years.

The biggest problem with raising dates has traditionally been getting the fruit down from the top of the tree. Date palms have to be individually pollinated and the fruit picked by hand. These tasks have traditionally been done by men who use ropes to climb the tree like lumber jacks or by young boys limber enough to shimmy up the trees barefoot. The scales on the trunk stick out enough that they an be used as foot holds. The date industry has suffered as more boys get an education and pursue other jobs. These days the dates are often harvested using cherry pickers and mechanical buckets liked those be men installing telephone lines.

Melons

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melons for sale in Xinjiang oasis
Melons of various kinds grow well in dry climates. Melons are one the earliest crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and dates. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D.

Melons belong to the gourd and squash family are a closer relative to cucumbers than watermelon, which originated from Africa. They are generally sweeter than pumpkins and squashes and are rich in Vitamins A and C. They are lots of varieties: honeydew melons, cantaloupes, and various fancy melons.

Melons grow on vines that spread across the ground. Their leaves are large and rounded and their flowers are yellow or orange and bell shaped. Melons grow during the summer in a wide variety of soils and need 120 to 140 days without frost. The vines require a lot of moisture while the fruit is maturing. Irrigation is common.

What are commonly called cantaloupes ate are actually netted melons or winter melons. True cantaloupes are found mainly in Europe. Named after Cantalupo, a 16th century papal villa, they have a hard, watery rind. Asian versions of "cantaloupes" have green rather than orange flesh.

Watermelon

Watermelon plants are trailing ground vines with small yellow flowers and large deeply-notched leaves. Watermelons require a long growing season and high temperatures. There are a wide variety of watermelons. The ones eaten in the United States are large and long. The ones favored in Asia are almost perfectly round and a little bit smaller than soccer balls. Most have sweet red flesh and black seeds that are sometimes roasted and eaten a snacks.

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Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.

Watermelon were cultivated around the Mediterranean region about 1000 B.C. but didn’t make their way to Europe, India, China and Asia until the Middle Ages. They brought to Central America in the 16th century perhaps by slaves. Explorers found them growing in the Mississippi valley in 1673.

Watermelon have traditionally been an important food crop in Africa. The explorer David Livingston found "vast tracts of the country literally covered with these melons," He published a reports on the fruit in 1858 and described how it was grown in semidesert region as a source of water during droughts.

Wild watermelons grow in the Kalahari desert on southern Africa. They are able to thrive in areas with little water and extreme heat because of their ability to control active oxygen, which causes aging and skin disorders in humans, and conserve water by closing the stomata on the surface of their leaves to prevent evaporation without withering by using an amino acid called citrulline. Bushmen use watermelon juice to wash with and treat their skins.

A mini-watermelon with s sweet flavor, thin rinds and no dark seeds was introduced in the early 2000s. Patented under the name Syngenta and sold in the United States under the brand name Purheart, the melon weight 2.3 kilograms and is perfectly spherical in shape. Japanese scientist are investigating properties of watermelon as an ingredient for cosmetics and health drinks.

Corn and Maize

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Corn does pretty well deserts. It is the world’s No.1 grain in terms of production but only No.3 as dietary staple after rice and wheat, accounting for 5 percent of the world’s human caloric intake. The reason for this discrepancy is that most corn is raised primarily as livestock feed. There are over 300 different "races" of corn. In most parts of the world corn is called maize. [Source: Robert Rhoades, National Geographic, June 1993, ╖]

Corn kernels are the main source of food. They are wrapped in a tough, fibrous outer hull which makes up about 3 percent of the kernel. The germ makes up 4.5 percent. The remainder is the endosperm. Corn kernels contains about 10 to 25 percent water depending on the conditions it is grown. Of the dry portion about 10 percent is protein, 10 percent is fiber, minerals and fat and 80 percent is carbohydrates. The protein, called gluten, is nutritious and provides a stickiness useful in trapping yeast and making bread. Most of the carbohydrates are in the form of starch.

Corn crops yield canned corn, corn on the cob, corn oil, corn meal, breakfast cereals, corn sugar, corn syrup alcohol for whiskeys, margarine, livestock feed, fibers used in inks and lacquers, and starch used in paper and textile manufacturing and numerous other products. Scientists are now experimenting with other uses for corn such as corn starch packing peanuts and biodegradable corn-based golf tees. Corn can be made into sugar-based ethanol which can be mixed with gasoline.╖

Very little corn is consumed on the cob or even is cans or frozen packets. Much of the corn in the United States is grown for animal feed and corn syrup and corn sugar for processed foods. Most corn that is produced is worldwide is used for livestock feed. In many parts of the world where it is eaten by humans it is ground into flour and consumed as bread, tortillas or porridge.

Websites and Resources: University of Iowa Corn Page agronext.iastate.edu ; National Corn Growers Association ncga.com ; Corn Growers Guidebook agry.purdue.edu ; History of Corn New York Times ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ;U.S. Grains Council grains.org/corn ; International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center cimmyt.org ;

History of Corn

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Corn and tesointe
Some scientists believe that the corn from teosinte a weedy wild grass still found in remote areas of Mexico that has inch-long "ears" and look more like wheat than corn. Other believe it comes from criollo, a plant native to a remote region of Sierre Norte de Oaxaca in Mexico, or cornlike plant that has since become extinct. Primitive corncobs from these plants found in a Oaxaca cave were dated to 6,300 B.C.

In 2001, based of DNA studies, scientists concluded that corn did in fact evolve from teosinte. It is believed that ancient people in southern Mexico and Central America began harvesting grains from wild teosinte about 10,000 years. Through selective breeding these plants developed large stalks and seeds and eventually these became the cobs we associate with corn today.

People in the New World ate a variety of corn products. The Mayans drank atole , a thick beverage made from fermented corn meal. Popcorn was invented in Peru. In 1493 Columbus carried corn from the New World back to Spain. At first it was treated as a novelty by botanists, but within a hundred years it was widely grown not only in Europe but also in Africa and Asia.

Indian corn came in a variety of colors. Europeans preferred the yellow variety. Over time scientists created hybrids with desirable characteristics that resulted in the corns were are familiar with today. Some were bred for eating. Others were bred to produce large quantities of food. New varieties of corn were one of the cornerstones for the Green Revolution in the 1970s. But unfortunately the drive to create a few high-yield species has caused many other varieties to disappear. Only 20 percent of the corn recorded in Mexico in 1930 can be found today.

Corn Agriculture

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Mature corn plants can grow over 40 feet high but most are between six and 20 feet high. At the top of the plant is a spiked tassel. Further down are one of more spikes that develop into ears, which grow from the beneath the leaves. Certain agricultural techniques have been developed for specific varieties of corn. Great care has to be taken though not to injure the shallow grasslike roots.

Corn has many advantages over other grains. It can be harvested every 120 days and grows in a wide variety of habitats: rain forests with poor soils, deserts with 115̊F temperatures, 12,000-foot-high mountain terraces, and glacier scoured land near the Arctic.

Corn needs lots of sun; requires the clearing of land to cultivate; grows best in well drained soils; and often need a lot of water. Because corn requires more nutrients than some other grains it often is rotated in a three-year cycle when a enough fertilizer isn't available. Legume, alfalfa or sweet clover are planted the first year to provide enough nitrogen. The second year corn is grown. The following year a small grain is cultivated. Then the three-year cycle is repeated.

Most corn is harvested with mechanical pickers. The entire corn plant is often harvested and stored in a silo. After it has dried the grain is removed. The stalks and leaves are often used in livestock feed.

Corn is vulnerable to a number of pests and diseases. The corn crop in the United States the 1970s was devastated by an unusual fungus. the problem was remedied by modifying seeds s they contained a gene from the a type of African maize resistant to disease.

Millet

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millet in Mali
Millet is a hard cereal that resembles a cat tail with wheat-like stalks growing out of it. Although virtually unknown in North America and western Europe, it is eaten by millions of people, many of them very poor, in semiarid regions of tropical Africa and Asia.

Millet's small seeds can be ground into meal or flour or eaten as whole grain. Because it isn't glutinous, millet flour does not rise and can be made only into a flat, or pan, bread.

Millet grows in a wide range of climates and soils and comes in many varieties. It needs less sun and water than rice and grows well in mountains and semi-deserts where other crops have difficulty growing. Millet was once grown in western Europe, where it was known as the "poor man's cereal." But over time it has been replaced by rye and wheat. It is still raised in Eastern Europe, where it is used for making bread, porridge and beer.

Researchers say that millet can be made resistant to drought and salt; the nutritional value of its food volume can be boosted; and it can be made resistant to diseases and bacteria through bioengineering. Like sorghum and cassava, unfortunately, it receives little attention from agricultural biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International because there is little profit in it for them.

Sorghum

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Sorghum ready for harvesting
Sorghum is a versatile grass originating from Africa. A close relative of millet, it is a purplish red grain that grow at the top of a corn-like plant. It requires relatively little water and grows well in mountainous and semi-desert areas. It provides human food, feed grain, molasses, pasturage and broom straw.

Sorghum is grown in 66 countries. It is the leading cereal grain in Africa and is an important food source in Asia and the Middle East. It is used to make unleavened bread, boiled into porridge or gruel, or processed into malted beverages and specialty foods such as popped grain and beer. The United States is the world’s leading producer. Most of sorghum produced there and in Latin America is used as livestock feed.

Sorghum is sometimes called milo. As is true with oats and rice, sorghum seeds are contained in branching heads called panicles. There are approximately 750 to 1,250 seeds in one sorghum grain head. Sorghum such as kafir and durra are sometimes classified as varieties of millet.

Researchers say that sorghum can be made resistant to drought and salt; the nutritional value of its food volume can be boosted; and it can be made resistant to diseases and bacteria through bioengineering. Like millet and cassava, unfortunately, it receives little attention from agricultural biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International because there is little profit in it for them.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Deserts Geology and Resources by A.S. Walkers, USGS Online publication; Rick Gore, National Geographic, November 1979 [┵]; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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