Date palms are native to the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, where they grow naturally around oases. Archaeological evidence indicates fruits of the date palm were grown by ancient civilizations over 6,000 years ago, making dates one the earliest fruits cultivated by agrarian society.
Seeds and offshoots from foreign date palms were first brought to the Coachella Valley from Egypt, Algeria, and the Persian Gulf at the end of the 19th Century. An experimental agricultural station was established near Indio in 1904 to test the viability of date production, as the climate and geography of the Coachella Valley was much like that of the Middle East. Date production turned out to be very successful, and the Coachella Valley date industry took off.
Today, dates are the most valuable crop in local agriculture. The Coachella Valley date industry yielded 37,796 tons of dates on 9,449 acres, at a value of over $83 million in the year 2020.
Date fruits can vary widely in taste, texture, and consistency between different plants. When an exceptionally good-quality fruit is discovered, the individual date palm is named, and offshoots are propagated and cultivated for the same fruit. Two of the most commonly produced dates are “Medjool” and “Deglet Noor,” although there are many other named varieties. The popular “Medjool” date was brought to the Coachella Valley in 1927 in the form of nine individual offshoots supplied from a single oasis in Morocco. All “Medjool” date palms in the United States today trace their origins to those same nine offshoots.
Because date palms reproduce by seed as well as by clonal offshoots, they are easy to propagate and widely available to purchase. Date palms are outstanding specimens to include in a desert garden, as they create shade, fruit, and a tropical look with occasional deep watering. Date palms thrive in the desert, as they are said to prefer their feet in the water, and their heads on fire.
Choose a female plant for a crop of fresh fruit every year, or a male plant for a lower-maintenance option without the fruit cleanup. Cousins of the date palm that grow well in the Coachella Valley include the Pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii), Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), and Senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata), although these species are grown for their landscape appearance rather than their fruit. Always be sure to sterilize gardening tools before trimming any variety of date palm, as they are susceptible to Fusarium wilt disease, which can be transferred from a sick palm to a healthy one via infected pruning equipment.
Sources: The Desert Sun, CVWD 2021 Annual Agriculture Report, CA Department of Food & Agriculture