The date plum is a tree belonging to the Ebenaceae family and the Diospyros genus that is considered to be one of the oldest plants cultivated by humans. The modern English name was given because the fruits taste like a cross between a date and a plum. It has an extensive native range, from subtropical areas of southwest Asia all the way to southeast Europe.
The date plum fruit has been known and consumed for a very long time. It was cultivated since the dawn of civilization and was frequently attested in written sources. Date plum might have even been mentioned by Homer, the legendary ancient Greek poet who authored the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. In the 4th chapter of the second part of the Odyssey, Homer describes a fruit with a honey sweet taste that made men go nuts. They were seduced by its taste, forgot about everything else and went to the land of the lotus, in a state of trance. Greeks valued the date plum so much that it was actually known as the god of fruits. Because of its taste, the fruit was considered divine and was associated with the ancient gods. An alternative name for it was the "wheat of Zeus", since they believed that the god was eating it. This tradition has been preserved by the scientific name of the plant, diospyros lotus, which means "the divine fruit". It continues to be highly praised today, all over its native range.
The date plum tree grows in a large area, starting from eastern Asia to Spain on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is very hard to establish today the actual native range of the species. The Latin name given to the entire genus comes from ancient Greece, when it was known as God's fruit. However, the English name references the actual taste of the fruit, between a plum and a date. It probably came from the Old Persian name, which meant the same thing. Historians suspect the date plum was the lotus tree from the Odyssey, said to be so sweet that whoever ate it remained with the lotus-eaters and never wanted to return home.
The date plum tree can reach a maximum height of 30 m but typically is about 15 m tall. It sheds old bark and has oval leaves, with a leathery appearance, between 5 and 15 cm long and 3 to 6 cm wide, with pointy tips. Date plum blossoms in June or July, with tiny green flowers. The berries turn yellow when they become ripe and are small, no larger than 2 cm, with delicious and juicy flesh. Their seeds have a very strong endosperm but delicate skin.
There are two main varieties of fruits, which can be either purple or between yellow and orange in color. Both types are harvested after their skin softens and becomes darker. Ideally, the date plum fruits will be golden orange or dark purple, almost brown. A very useful sign that the fruits are ripe and ready to be harvested is the sweet aroma that emanates from the trees as the skin of the date plums becomes mushy. The ripe fruit should be very sweet. If it is slightly sour, then it was picked too early.
Date plums are known for the very powerful taste, despite their small size. The flesh is very sweet, with an attractive aroma that has been compared to velvet. The shape and size is also similar to a date, if the fruits are dried. The skin can be consumed as well, unlike the one of the fuyu persimmon, which is very bitter due to the high content of tannins. Date plums are also said to taste like toffee.
Date plums have a number of uses in traditional folk medicine. Consuming them is said to help against digestive issues like constipation and dysentery, as well as hemorrhoids. It is also useful in cases of hiccups, diarrhea, asthma or lung infections, due to some astringent compounds in its composition. Immature date plum fruits have a cooling effect and can treat constipation.
The University of Mazandaran in Iran has studied the fruit's seeds and discovered several important health effects. They act as antihemolytics and antioxidants.
Italy's University of Calabria focused on the fruit's potential use as a cancer treatment. The extract was found to hamper the growth of 9 different types of tumours.
The date plum tree's leaves are not toxic and have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective and antioxidant effects. They include a compound named betulinic acid, according to the Encyclopaedia of World Medicinal Plants. This acid is known for its effects against some forms of cancer, especially of the head, brain and neck. It can also kill some leukemia cells and fight ovarian carcinoma.
Since ancient times, date plums were known as a cure for lung infections, asthma and other respiratory problems. They can also treat many other conditions, from anxiety and stress to diarrhea and fever.
Date plums are usually consumed raw. However, they also serve as an ingredient in numerous dishes and can add a delicious taste to many combinations. They are commonly prepared as a jam, mixed with sugar and a bit of lemon. These fruits are also well suited for bakery products, in particular pies and cakes. They are an excellent ingredient in breakfast combinations, combined with oats, granolas or various cereals.
The date plum tree is widespread in the Caucasus Mountains, at low and average altitudes. In most places it doesn't grow higher than 600 m above sea level, except in Central Asia, where it can be found all the way to 2000 m. The date plum is usually mixed with deciduous trees like the ash, maple or hackberry. It needs plenty of light but tolerates poor and rocky soils. Besides its native range, date plum is cultivated today in other parts of the world, such as the US, Pakistan and North Africa.
Date plum trees are extremely common in the region where the borders of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. In that area, date plum ripens at the start of spring, during the months of January and February. Date plum also grows at elevations between 2500 and 6000 feet in cold areas of the Himalayan Mountains. Date plum thrives in locations with sun or light shade, as well as deep soils. Date plum tree doesn't like soils with poor drainage or too much moisture and enjoys dry warm weather and a sheltered position.
The date plum is a dioecious species, which means that every plant has both male and female elements. As a result, it can reproduce without the need for pollination or any other external action. Seeds are viable and are also the most common way to propagate the tree. Seedlings germinate readily when covered with soil but grow slowly and might need up to half a year to emerge from it. The best moment to plant them is at temperatures around 15 Celsius degrees, at the start of the year.