Mention Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley and most tourists think golf, Rat Pack and, if they're music fans, the Coachella Fest.
What doesn't spring to mind is agriculture, particularly not the husbandry of dates. Yet, this fertile valley on the edge of the Sonoran Desert supplies 90 percent of the world's date crop. It's one of the only places on the planet with the right climatic conditions. Date palms need heat, desert and a thriving aquifer they can dip into when thirsty.
Originating in the Middle East, dates are one of the oldest cultivated crops, having been purposely planted and bred for at least 6,000 years. They didn't get to the Coachella Valley until the 1890s when the U.S. Department of Agriculture brought over 68 shoots from date palms in Egypt and Algeria and didn't become prolific until 1929 when the first railroad car of dates left California for the East Coast. Since then, they've pretty much cornered the commercial date market.
And while most tourists to the Coachella Valley don't seek out dates, at least not the edible kind, I recently discovered why you should:
1. Where else can you catch date porn? At Shields Date Gardens, one of a couple date farms open to the public, you can sit in old wooden theater seats and watch a 15-minute video called The Romance and Sex Life of the Date. This rousing feature film/slide show that shows on a continuous loop was created 50 years ago by Floyd Shields who, along with wife Bessie, was one of the valley's first growers. What Floyd was trying to explain is that a date palm's sex life requires a lot of adult supervision. Unlike many plants that contain both male and female parts, date palms grow up as one or the other. Left to their own devices, they "mate" by the whims of the wind. In the Coachella Valley, growers set the palms up, so to speak, by shinnying up 80 to 100-foot palms and shaking the male's pollen on waiting female stocks. If I was a male date palm, I'd choose to grow up here where the odds are definitely in the male's favor. Each male date palm gets 50 acres and a whole harem of 50 females, all of which he's responsible for satisfying.
2. You can sip date shakes. If you haven't had one, you're in for a real treat. Not only are they delicious, putting boring flavors like chocolate and vanilla shakes to yawning shame, but they're actually good for you. Some nutritionists claim dates are the perfect food, providing a complete nutritional profile. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, mentions them 26 times in the Koran and urged his followers to break their Ramadan fast each night with a date. Many wealthy Saudis order their prized Medjools, in fact, from Oasis Dates Gardens, a 175-acre organic Medjool ranch started by a well-known palm plant pathologist.
3. Date farms provide cheap entertainment. Several of the area's 350 date growers provide cheap (read: free) entertainment, sometimes hard to come by in a valley with more plastic surgeons and Rolls Royce dealerships per capita than anywhere on the planet. Guests can take tours, sample a surprising number of date varieties, brush up on their date trivia and rifle through big wooden barrels of all varieties of dates.
4. Dates make excellent exfoliants and scrubs. Spa Desert Springs, the largest spa in southern California, uses organic Medjool dates for facial scrubs, massages and peels. Ringing in at 38,000-square feet with a whopping 47 treatment rooms, this award-winning spa incorporates limestone and Brazilian walnut throughout, has a gorgeous 10-foot waterfall adjacent to the check-in desk and offers Turkish-inspired hammams. The 450-acre resort it belongs to, JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, provides date-themed items at its many restaurants.