The National Date Festival in Indio, which started last weekend and continues through Sunday, attracts thousands of visitors each year.
For date-loving North County residents, the trip into neighboring Riverside County for the festival is a worthwhile trek. The Coachella Valley produces more than 40 million pounds of dates annually, or 99% of the U.S. crop.
One of the oldest palm groves in the valley, Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal, belongs to Ben and Pat Laflin.
Ben Laflin's father, Ben Sr., who was inspired by the area's Sahara-like climate, homesteaded the land in 1912. At first he planted seedling palms, but soon discovered it was the wrong approach, since seedlings rarely adopt the parent tree's characteristics.
Offshoots of existing trees were required, and for that, Ben Sr. had to rely on imported varieties. He planted the plump, honey-flavored Medjool, a date almost decimated by disease in its native North Africa.
His original nine trees eventually multiplied into 5,000, making Oasis Date Gardens one of the largest commercial Medjool groves in the United States.
"Dates are quite prone to disease," said Ben Jr., a plant pathologist who once served as a consultant to the United Nations. "Any imported offshoot is subject to a 5- or 6-year quarantine."
Indeed, the grove's majestic trees stand as living testimony to the Laflins' careful growth practices. Many of the gray-green fronds tower more than 40 feet above the ground. "These rows were planted in 1948, when Ben Jr. and I got married," Pat Laflin said.
Newly planted offshoots cover additional acres.
"My husband loves to plant dates," Pat said with a laugh. "Growing palm trees is a long-term project, since they only grow about one foot a year, and it takes five years to get any fruit."
Only female trees produce the dates. Since the trees must be hand-pollinated, growers in the Coachella Valley have adopted the "harem" idea, planting one male palm in the midst of 48 females. Each year, at the end of March, cultivators climb up the male trees, collect the flowers, and attach the blossoms inside the female trees' flower bunches.
When the dates start to ripen, they are covered with paper bags to protect them from dust, rain or hungry birds. The early-fall harvest calls for manual picking from ladders or from mobile steel towers. From there, the dates are cleaned and sorted according to size in the Laflins' large warehouse.
Each step along the way requires manual handling.
In addition to the Medjool date, which can reach up to three plump inches as a "jumbo," the Laflins produce the amber Barhi, which is also sold in the khalal --or hard, yellow--stage in September and October. The light amber Halawy (an Arabic word for "sweet") ships well, as does the mahogany Khadrawy, one of the first dates to ripen in the valley.
The Deglet Noor, or "Date of Light," most often sold in the United States as the California date, qualifies as semi-dry, and requires hydrating inside special chambers. They, along with the roundish Zahidi, are best for cooking.
The most unusual dates, however, are grown and sold only in the Coachella Valley.
Pat Laflin carefully opened a box, lined with jet-black Abbada dates, ready to be entered in a local contest. These, and other Oasis Date Gardens products, are all available year-round by mail, as well as at the on-site gift shop.
A few miles away, Alan Anderson grows mainly Medjools and Deglet Noors organically.
"I was born in the business," he said. "My grandfather started growing dates organically in the late 1930s." Anderson's mother, Lois, handles market sales while his aunt runs the Covalda Date Co. in Coachella.
Growing dates organically also runs in the family for David Da Vall of the 25-acre Da Vall Gardens in Coachella.
Da Vall's great-great-uncle developed the Honey and the Empress dates, both California varieties.
"He couldn't afford to buy offshoots," Da Vall said, "so he planted 300 seeds and selected the best trees."
Dates contain up to 80% glucose or fructose sugar. They are a good source of iron and potassium, fiber and vitamins B1 and B2, among others. It is best to let the fruit ripen on the tree when the climate is warm and dry. If rain is forecast, cut off the bunch of dates and set it in a warm, well-ventilated room, away from insects. Dates keep for several months when refrigerated.
Oasis Date Gardens, 59-111 Highway 1111, P.O. Box 757, Thermal, Calif. 92274. (800) 827-8017. All date products available by mail. Call or write for catalogue. Wholesale prices available. Store open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Fresh Dates by Anderson, 59-777 Calhoun, Thermal, Calif. 92274. (619) 399-5017, early mornings. Available by mail and at Vista and Del Mar farmer's markets. Jumbo Medjools in 3-pound flats are $9 plus shipping; in 15-pound flats, $37.50 plus shipping, via UPS.
Da Vall Date Gardens, 82-375 Avenue 52, Coachella, Calif. 92236. (619) 398-4600. Call or write for brochure. Also distributed through health food stores and specialty markets in San Diego County. Dates range from $2 to $3.50 a pound at Vista and Del Mar farmer's markets.