If there is one thing that our area can claim as unique in Europe it is the intensive cultivation of date palm trees. Palms of various types grow in other parts of Europe; one thinks of the famous palms of the glamorous French Riviera or even those of the more prosaic “English Riviera” of Torbay. However, only southern Alicante province can truly be said to have placed palms at the centre of local life and culture, with the queen of the palms being the city of Elche and its Palmeral

Palms have existed for around 80 million years and whilst some of the over 2,600 species have tree-like characteristics there is debate as to whether it is even strictly correct to call them trees; the only native Iberian palm, ‘palmito or dwarf palm’, is in fact more of a shrub in size and appearance. However, it is of course the majestic and distinctly arboreal date palms that are the signature plant of our region.

Humans have cultivated date palms since ancient times with the Mesopotamians of what is now Iraq being the earliest recorded date palm farmers. Indeed, the cultivation of dates seems to have existed as long as settled human life. Palm dates fed the people in the cradle of human civilization and there are multiple references to palms and their products in both the Bible and Quran. When we look at date palms we are greeting a plant whose history has been intimately entwined with our own for the entirety of recorded human life.

So how did this beautiful and useful yet somewhat enigmatic plant come to flourish in our region and particularly in Elche? The date palm is native to the Middle East and North Africa and it is believed that the date palm was first brought to the Elche region by the Phoenicians. The Romans later brought water management to provide reliable irrigation by constructing a dam on the Rio Vinalopó and feeding the river waters into a system of irrigation channels. This greatly increased the agriculture of the area including the date palms. However, the foundations of the current date palm Palmeral of Elche were laid during the early years of muslim rule under the Caliphate of Cordoba. The muslim rulers greatly expanded the irrigation system and created an artificial oasis and palm forest in the otherwise naturally arid land around what is now Elche.

The characteristic grid pattern of the date palm plantations of Elche is a product of this period. The date palms were not solely or even primarily planted and cultivated for their fruit; in fact the date palms’ most important function was to create stable environments within which other crops including corn and fruits could be cultivated. The muslim farmers and gardeners grew the date palms around the edges of their fields to create what we would nowadays call microclimates. The dense lines of palms would provide shade and moisture for the other more delicate crop plants grown within the fields they bordered. Large growths of plants also reduce land surface temperature and make both plant and human life easier in the height of the southern iberian summer; (something that our local council might learn from…).

The Palmeral of Elche is therefore not simply a date tree plantation; it quite literally is the bedrock upon which the history and prosperity of the city of Elche rests. The palms allowed cultivation and life to thrive in the city and its surrounding region. The combination of irrigation and cultivation within palm and wall enclosed fields and gardens has continued in various forms up to the present day with the later christian kings further developing the irrigation and cultivation of the city.

The special place that date palms have in the life of Elche is most famously reflected in the use of local white palm fronds at Easter: Palm Sunday is celebrated nowhere quite like Elche!

All of us are surely well acquainted with Elche and its palms, hardly giving any thought to it all as we rush through the city in busy daily life. However, we urge you to stop next time you are in the city and allow yourselves to appreciate just how special Elche and its Palmeral are. Have a little wander around the city, visit the wonderful hotel Huerto del Cura and enjoy a drink surrounded by palms of incredible shapes and sizes or even follow the well signed 10km walk through the city’s main huertos and parks. The Elche Palmeral is a huge and wonderful artificial oasis created over the centuries by working with nature to build an entire ecosystem.

The Palmeral of Elche, with almost 300.000 thousand palms, is a UNESCO world heritage site but perhaps equally special it has this month had a BBC programme devoted to it by Monty Don – surely there can be no greater tribute to our wonderful, unique and magical palm forest…


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