Searching for Water in the Desert: Date Palm

Published: February 1st, 2008 | Updated: 16/01/15

I am thirsty

Plants that always grow near fresh water springs may help the wanderer in the desert to find drinkable water. From the plants’ resistance to water salinity, the quality of the water may be indicated, even before it is tasted. Cisterns that were dug in the past continue to hold water today, and recognizing such constructions may help to discover their potable water. Such wells and cisterns may be revealed by typical signs such as soil dug from the cistern and disposed of as a pile differing from the ground nearby in color and morphology. Channels constructed to feed the cisterns may also reveal their location. Seeds of plants that grow in water-rich soil may germinate and grow in the area of the cistern, thereby enabling it to be located from a great distance. The knowledge of planting traditions of certain trees near water may save us from extreme thirst. Many plants store water in their body and consuming certain parts of such plants may serve as a source of water. However, it should be noted that some plants are poisonous and should not be eaten.

The date palm’s head is in fire and its feet are in water

Many of the fresh water springs in desert areas of Israel, Jordan and Sinai may be seen from a great distance (Fig. 4.1.1). The title of this chapter is a translation of an old Bedouin proverb that expresses the collective observations on the ecology and location of the plant in the desert ecosystems. Many researchers look upon springs in the East Mediterranean desert as a primary habitat of the [date palm]. The latter is a diecious tree, meaning that there are trees carrying only female flowers and the rest produce only male flowers. In wild, spontaneous populations the male/female ratio is 1:1. In cultivated date palm plantations only female trees are planted, as only the females produce fruit, and the date growers are responsible for artificial pollination. The male/female ratio in the palm population of desert springs in many of the enchanted oases in canyons of Moav, Sinai, and the Negev is 1:1. Cultivated date palms often have a single trunk, whereas the wild ones often constitute a group of many trunks. This is the way such trees are seen near springs of the Beit-Shean Valley (Fig. 4.1.1).

In my youth I participated in an excursion to the springs of the Judean Desert. How sweet was the water of ‘En ‘Aneva (‘Ain ‘Uneiba) in the early summer morning (Fig. 4.1.2). The branched palm and the wet tongue of soil below it are firmly engraved in the memory of all the participants in that excursion. My friend Mike Livne participated in one of our research excursions in southern Sinai. When climbing up to Jebel Sirbal he suddenly declared – “There is a spring, we are saved.” (Fig. 4.1.3) Another hidden spring occurs among the dry mountains of south-west Sinai, marked by the arrow (Fig. 4.1.4). The remains of a date palm with its roots (Fig. 4.1.5), seen in a dry watercourse, testify without a doubt to a fresh water source upstream. When approaching the place, groups of branched palms are seen (Fig. 4.1.6). In many places water comes out of the ground and [Juncus] (Fig. 4.1.7a) and [Phragmites australis] (Fig. 4.1.7b) plants are seen near the stream. These two plants can function as indicators for water even when no palms grow in the vicinity.

Fig. 4.1.1: Date palms grow in desert areas with a high water table. Some people dig a depression near them and potable water then becomes available to passers-by. The right-hand photo shows a typical young branched tree.

Fig. 4.1.2: En Aneva is a hidden spring where memories from my youth combine with branched date palms.

Fig. 4.1.3: On such an occasion Mike Livne (front) would declare “A spring, our lives are saved!”

Fig. 4.1.4: One of the driest landscapes in Sinai – “El Qaa” in its southwestern part. The arrow indicates where the next three photos were shot.

Fig. 4.1.5: When you discover an uprooted dead palm tree like this, it is worth searching for its place of origin upstream.

Fig. 4.1.6: The date palm population seen from a great distance (in Fig. 4.1.4).

Fig. 4.1.7: Fresh water seeps out of the ground, with Phragmites and Juncus plants growing by the water course.

Fig. 4.1.8: A clump or tuft of Phragmites australis. The wealth of flowering canes and their height indicate plenty of water. Unfortunately, in the vicinity of Bet Shemesh this is sewage water.