In case you can’t tell by the sniffling of your co-workers, it’s pollen season here in the Valley. Yes, from roadside desert flowers to the unmistakable scent of citrus blossoming Valley-wide, our local flora is in full-on bloom. Which is why, here in the heart of one of Phoenix’s poshest neighborhoods, one local plant lover is riding around inside a cherry-picker, armed with a machete and a passion for preserving one of the Valley’s rarest, most historic crops.
Named the Black Sphinx Date, these creamy, unbelievably-sweet treats grow naturally here and no where else in the world. A unique hybrid that evolved from date palms originally imported from Arabia in the 1920s, Black Spinx and other varieties of dates were one of the Valley’s original cash crops, with 15,000 trees producing more than one million pounds of fruit back in its heyday in the 1950s.
These days, most of the date ranches are long gone, swallowed up by suburban sprawl and changing American tastes, where dates are now considered something your grandparents ate vs. a delicious, all-natural delicacy. That said, there’s a sprinkling of working groves left here in the Valley, including one located in the Arcadia district in the shadows of Camelback Mountain. And for the last three years, one neighborhood resident, Erica Schlather, has been hand pollinating dozens of these historic trees, and then selling the fruits of her labor directly from her home or at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market.
Named Mountgrove Arcadia Black Sphinx Dates (602-505-7892), you can taste history on a plate for just a few more weeks as Schlather sells off last season’s final batch. After that, you’ll have to wait until October, when the plants she’s currently pollinating ripen into sugary-sweet, sun-baked perfection.
Of course, Schlather is quick to credit her mentor, Harry Polk, who’s been single-handedly keeping the Black Sphinx Date tradition going for nearly 40 years. (He sells the fruit from the 100 or so date trees he personally pollinates to wholesalers such as Whole Foods.) It’s a complicated and time-consuming process as each March they take to the skies in a cherry picker, slicing open the male ‘pollen paddles’ with a machete, and then hand pollinating each female date plant. At first, the date fruit blooms as a bright white cluster, that slowly darkens from green to ruby red.
By this time, the daring duo have to take to the sky again to delicately wrap each date cluster to protect the rapidly-ripening fruit from predators such as birds. Finally, in early October, the now-deep purple dates are ready for harvest. However, because they will continue to ferment after picking, most dates are dried before being shipped to markets. Think turning grapes into raisins or plums into prunes.
Instead, Schlather tosses her Black Sphinx Dates into the freezer to stop them from spoiling while preserving the amazing-yet-delicate flavor balance. Even cooler, these dates are so creamy and fiber-filled, you can gobble them right out of the freezer.