The History of Growing DATES in the Coachella Valley

BY BERNIE (& Heather) KLASHINSKY

THE DATE PALM IS THE OLDEST known cultivated tree crop, and yet one of the least written about and the least understood of all fruit produced. The history of the date goes back to biblical times.

In the late 1920?s, the California Department of Agriculture did some field-testing to determine what cash crops might be grown in the Coachella Valley. The soil here is very rich, because it was once a great inland sea. With some trial and error, they found that the soil, the temperature and with irrigation, the date palm could be grown here successfully. This was the beginning of what was to become a very prosperous business in this area, along with tourism.

Every time you plant a date seed a new kind of date is originated, just as every time a child is born a new person is brought into the world. Nature has never repeated on dates grown from seeds. The only way to perpetuate a variety of dates is to propagate its suckers during the first ten to fifteen years of its life. When an offshoot is removed from its parent and replanted it will still take an additional eight to fifteen years before it will bear fruit. The fact is that the new trees grown from the offshoots will be exact clones of their parents.

 

Despite the fact that the date palm is a desert plant, it is a very thirsty one. The trees in the plantation are flooded every week to 10 days to ensure their root system is kept wet. There is an old world saying about dates: ?A date palm must have its feet in the water, and its head in the fires of heaven?. Water is brought to the Coachella Valley via the All American canal from the Colorado River. The Coachella branch is 124 miles long, and it irrigates 80,000 acres.

Another interesting feature about the date palm is that nature made no adequate provision to pollinate the female date blooms. Bees and insects will go to the male date flower, but never go to the female bloom until after it is pollinated. So how does the date palm produce fruit? It is the intervention of man more so than nature that ensures a good crop of fruit each year.

Back as far as there are recorded records, man has cut the male flowers from the male palm, and placed them in the tops of the female palms. In this procedure the male pollen was blown around over the female blooms, and thereby producing about a 50 to 75 percent crop. A crude system but it worked.

Today?s date producers use a much more efficient system. A plantation will typically consist of 48 female trees and one male tree per acre. This combination ensures an adequate pollination, and a maximum amount of female trees producing fruit.

Throughout the pollinating season, the plantation workers will visit the male trees each morning, and cut off the flowers that have bloomed during the night. Under controlled conditions they shake the male flowers to extract the approximate half a cup of pollen, which is like a white powder. This powder is then loaded into puffers, and the workers puff the pollen into the female blooms. On each of the little berries on the female bloom there are three tiny tentacles, which are moist with sap when the bloom opens. The workers must get the pollen from the male bloom in contact with this sap before it dries. If the female blooms are not pollinated, they will still produce fruit, but without seeds, and without seeds they will not sugar up and mature properly.

During the months of February, March and April, the workers will check each female tree on a daily basis. If they notice any new female flowers they are pollinated with the male pollen.

When the fruit is the size of a small olive, the workers carry out a thinning process. If all the dates were allowed to develop, the branches would break. They cut out the centre plants, and leave an amount based on their knowledge of just how much the tree has produced in the past. That may be 50 pounds, or it may be 100 pounds. If they ?force? a tree to over produce, it will give a poor quality fruit, or reduced production the following year.
While the trees themselves need lots of water, rain is the worst enemy of the date producers. Therefore, as soon as the fruit starts to develop, they cover each bunch of dates with waterproof covers. These covers are put on the end of August. The dates will begin to ripen early in September, and from then until Christmas the fruit is picked once a week.

A date palm feeds through its roots and breathes through its leaves. When the tips of the leaves turn brown and die, the leaves are cut off. At this time the workers also de-thorn the remaining fronds. Each frond has very sharp thorns, and they are removed to ensure that the workers are not injured during pollination and picking.
A date palm will grow approximately one to 2.5 feet each year. The workers attach steel ladder sections near the tops of the trees, and they use portable ladders to reach the fixed ladders and the tops of the trees. Palms will grow to 100 feet in height, but most of the producers replant their trees, so that the fruit bearing trees are at a more workable height.

When you are visiting in the Indio, Palm Springs area, you should include a visit to the Shields Date Gardens, located on Highway 111, in Indio, CA. Floyd and Bess Shields started their endeavours in date farming back in 1928. Although both have long since passed on, their legacy and their hard work in the production of dates in this area have set a standard for other plantation owners.

Your visit to their store should include a 20-minute stop in the air conditioned theatre to watch the film ?The Romance and Sex Life of the Date?. The film is very informative, and it outlines the history of date production in a very clear and informative way. Shields have samples of the dozen or so different varieties of dates they harvest and sell. They all have their own unique qualities, like degree of sweetness, moist or dry, caramel-like flavour, or more sugary. The favourite by far is the Medjool date. The Medjool dates are rare, and their ancestors came from Morocco. They are soft and with a very fine flavour and they are four to five times the size of other dates.

You can purchase small packages of the various kinds of dates, and also larger boxes up to 10 lbs for transport back home. For a small cost, you can also have dates shipped to Canada.

Of course no visit would be complete without some sampling of the many varieties of dates, and the ultimate treat of a date shake. I would suggest you skip breakfast or lunch the day you have your date shake. They contain a LOT of calories, but are such a great treat, especially on a hot day.

To visit Shields when in the Indio area, check out their store at
Shields Date Garden,
80-225 Highway 111, Indio, California, 92201-6599.
You may also order dates for shipment by contacting them at 1-800-414-2555.
Check out their website at wwwshieldsdategarden.com.

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