Greater Palm Springs may be famous for its date palm trees and lush groves, however, it is in the eastern edge of the destination—in and around Coachella—that the farms take hold and line the thoroughfare with the stately groves.
Dates aren’t native to this destination. In fact, the crops were imported from the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1800s as a USDA experiment. Agriculturists realized that the climate here is similar to those desert countries where date trees flourish. Date trees can only produce fruit in dry, arid conditions and need plenty of water at their roots to withstand the intense heat.
At the turn of the 20th century, the area was a Garden of Eden as many different experimental crops were introduced here and farming became an important industry long before Hollywood discovered this exotic, beautiful oasis.
Over the ensuing decades, date gardens were planted in abundance in this part of the valley, the allure of these stately trees with their finger-like pinnae or crowns along the dusty roads gave the oasis a distinctly Arabian look. Hence, the Arabian Nights theme of the National Date Festival that began in 1947.
As road travel in the 1920s began to increase, Greater Palm Springs became a destination for road trip adventure seekers. Along the single lane highway that traversed the desert, many an entrepreneurial date farmer opened up date shops, enticing visitors to stop for a date shake and to sample their delicious, unusual products.
With some date shops still in business up through the 1980s and 90s, many folks still recall as children the sweet sticky scent of dates piled up on baskets or in bins and the taste of their creamy, caramel flavor, like eating candy from a tree. The cool, thick sweetness of a date shake on a hot afternoon, memories of shady palm trees and grassy knolls, sear unforgettable images of a desert oasis into the soul.
Taste the Dates
Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years, cultivated in Mesopotamia and Egypt as early at 4000 BCE. While there are some 600 varieties of dates throughout the world, only a few are grown in Greater Palm Springs.
The largest crop is the Deglet Noor, which means “date of light,” in Arabic. This amber colored date is elongated, has a thin skin and light caramel flavor. Most of those you buy for out-of-hand eating have been hydrated and machine pitted.
The most popular date is the Medjool, a large, soft, creamy date that is truly like eating a piece of caramel candy. But there are variations even within the Medjools. Sugar Medjools are a little further along in the rutab stage (last ripening stage) where the sugar starts to come to the surface. These are particularly sweet and soft. The Royal Medjools are the largest of the variety, and soft Medjools are a little smaller, mellow in flavor.
A Family Affair
There are several date farms that still greet guests; others are open to online ordering. However, the agrarian drive is worth a side trip just to absorb the beauty of the “Arabian” groves.
Leja Farms in Coachella has been a family business for four generations. And each family member involved in the date farming process actually lives on the premise of a date grove. The Leja family tradition has grown through the years since its founding in 1960. Son Greg remains committed to growing superior dates, adapting to the changing technology and needs of the farming profession with an emphasis on ecologically friendly techniques. A near absence of pesticides and more natural fertilizers, combined with a solar-generated electrical system are some of farm’s newest innovations.
Oasis Date Gardens in nearby Thermal was established in 1912 by Ben and Lucy Laffin who later handed it down to son Ben and his wife Pat, now retired. Oasis Date Gardens was acquired in 1997 by Chris and Marlene Nielsen and Jim and Judy Freimuth who have specialized in the growing of organically certified Medjool dates under the Winterhaven Ranch label. Today, the 175-acre producing date ranch along with Winterhaven Ranch produce about 1,300,000 pounds of Medjool dates alone and another 1000,000 pounds of other varieties. Visit the Date Ranch Store to sample the date varieties and enjoy date shakes, cookies, breads and pie baked daily.
Hungry for more? Hop on the Greater Palm Springs foodie trail to discover more farm-to-table delights.