Game Changers The Ramadan Issue

How the date palm came to the U.S.

It all began towards the end of the 19th C, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out a group of ‘Agriculture Explorers’ to search the world for profitable crops.
Date palm fields of Mecca, California. Credit: Shutterstock.

Looking at the photo above, you are probably thinking that it was taken in the Arabian Peninsula or somewhere else in the Arab World, at least. But you would be wrong. This photo was indeed taken in Mecca but not Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Mecca, California.  

How did these two geographically distant locations come to resemble each other so much in landscape and name?

It all began towards the end of the 19th C, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent out a group of ‘Agriculture Explorers’ to search the world for profitable crops that would grow and flourish in the country. One of those explorers, Walter T. Swingle, brought back date palm offshoots from Algeria, after he observed the similarities between the climate and soil there and in sunny California.

Agriculture Explorer Walter T. Swingle at work. Photo courtesy of the Fairchild Botanic Garden Archive.

The cultivation of the hot and dry Colorado Desert in southeastern California, which is also characterised by high alkalinitiy of soil, had proved challenging to the Department of Agriculture. But Swingle’s observation was promising:

‘It is shown that no heat is too great and nor air too dry for this remarkable plant, which is actually favored by a rainless climate and by hot desert winds. It is also shown that the date palm can withstand great quantities of alkali in the soil- more than any other useful plant…It is probably the only profitable crop that can succeed permanently.’

Not long after Swingle’s fruitful expedition, date palms began shooting up, populating the vacant Colorado Desert, the most notable area being the Coachella Valley.

But it was when Frederick Popenoe, a Coachella Valley date grower, sent his two sons, Wilson and Paul, around the Arab world for more date palm offshoots in 1913 that more date variety began to come into the state. Traveling from Morocco all the way to Oman, and stopping by major date-producers such as Iraq and Al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia, the brothers brought back a total of 9,000 offshoots, including varieties like Mejdool and Fardh.  Several other explorers soon followed suit.

Deglet Noor is one of the two most popular date varieties in the USA. Credit: Shutterstock.

Reports by the California Crop and Livestock Reporting Service indicate that by 1919, 100,000 pounds of dates were produced in the Golden State. The number jumped to 48 million in 1955. Today, the USA is an exporter of dates, the main varieties of which are the Mejdool and Deglet Noor.

But great efforts were made by the farmers of the Coachella Valley to attract America to consume the foreign, quintessentially Arab fruit and to encourage tourists to visit its new desert home.

According to Nawal Nasrallah, author of Dates: A Global History, the earliest record of date palm cultivation dates back to 4000 BC Mesopotamia. The date palm was at the center of ancient Mesopotamians’ religious lives, economic wellbeing, and livelihood, a pattern that would repeat itself in all the civilizations that have emerged in the area.

For Arabs, the date palm has occupied a special place in their collective soul, with poets and intellectuals composing verses of poetry and clever expressions about it across the ages. That position was only strengthened by the advent of Islam and the positive mention of the heavenly tree in the Quran and prophetic teaching.

The farmers and marketing forces behind Coachella Valley’s date industry played on Arab association with the tree and its fruit to appeal to American consumers and tourists by launching the International Date Festival in the Colorado Desert in 1921. The 10-day festival that is dedicated to celebrating the conclusion of the date harvest in the Coachella Valley has featured Arabian Night themes, complete with a ‘Queen Scheherazade’ pageant and camel and ostrich races, strategically bringing many Americans’ fantasies of the Orient to life right in their backyard. In a further effort, the towns of Walters and Durbrow, California were also renamed Mecca and Arabia, respectively.

The first festival was held in 1921. Photo courtesy of the Coachella Valley History Museum.
A contestant of the Queen of Scheherazade Pageant riding on a camel. Courtesy of the Pomona Public Library.

The fact that the festival (now known as The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival) is still celebrated every February, that the date groves of California are ever-growing, and that sales of dates in the United States have been rising thanks to increased awareness of the health benefits of the superfood, all indicate that the Arabian date palm, though thousands of miles away from home, is thriving.

Want to enjoy dates differently this Ramadan? Try out this date shake recipe by Sarah Al-Hamad, author of Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere.

Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.