In the early 1900's many date palms began to be imported into the desert regions of the southwestern United States. An individual in Phoenix, Arizona named Roy Franklin discovered the tree in someone's yard, back in 1928, and that is the tree which became the mother tree of all the black sphinx trees. It was located on west Glenwood Avenue, between the 300 and 400 blocks in the Arcadia District. Due to the nature of date palms, seedlings are never used, and are rarely of any good quality. It would typically take about 5 years to discover if a seedling is a female or a male tree, with only the females producing the fruit, and only about 20% of the females typically produce fruit that's edible, so you can understand why this isn't done to any great degree. Roy was able with some help to plant the world's only black sphinx date grove.
Franklin interested Ellen Amelia Goodbody Brophy, a prominent Old West landowner and philanthropist, in the idea; 47 acres was planted on her property in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix to become the original black sphinx grove. Ellen died in 1934, and her son Frank Cullen Brophy and Ed Peterson took over date operation with Roy Franklin in an effort to grow dates commercially. Frank Cullen Brophy thought up the name “Sphinx” because of its mystery origins. Of course, dates are native to the middle east, and of course Egypt, and so the name "black sphinx" seemed like a good fit.
Having a seedling like a black sphinx date was an amazing find. Efforts were made to plant as many of the offshoots as possible, but due to the limited nature of this type of reproduction, it took decades to plant an entire grove. The end result was several hundred trees, mostly planted in the 1940's.
By 1954, with Phoenix beginning to spread out, and also due to the complex issue with growing and harvesting such a delicate wet date, the grove was subdivided. Many trees were removed, and homes were built. Over the years many efforts were made to continue harvesting dates, but after many years, most of the trees became purely ornamental.
Then beginning in 1978, Harry Polk began the arduous task of taking care of what trees remained in the grove. At that time, most the trees were about 20 years old, but as time went on, ladders gave way to bucket trucks and eventually a tow behind lift. Now most the trees are well over 40 feet tall, making the care and harvest of the dates extremely complex. A few years ago, Harry retired, and that's how I, a transplanted Canadian, ended up taking care of the most treasured date grove in the entire country. It does seem a bit odd that someone growing up in northern Canada would end up tending to a date grove in Arizona, but oddly enough, the owner of the operation in Dateland, Arizona and myself were both born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
The thing that made the black sphinx dates so special and so famous was also their demise. The dates are so soft, that large numbers of them succumb to being squished. This also makes the dates rather perishable, which means they require refrigeration. Their soft nature and delicate thin skin means that large numbers of dates are ruined in the process of growing, picking, sorting and packing the dates.
When the grove was originally planted, deglett noor dates dominated the market, which wasn't a very good eating variety. Slowly, medjool dates have taken over as the #1 eating variety, and although they are inferior in quality to black sphinx, they are much drier and have a thicker skin making them the date of choice for growers everywhere for obvious reasons.
While it seems unknown if harvesting black sphinx dates will continue, this year is looking like a good harvest, depiste extremely difficult conditions, and we can all enjoy them for now.