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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Coachella Valley's Shields Date Garden

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Palm Springs: a luxurious resort community with ideal weather, or a scorching hot desert unfit for humanity? From what little I had gleaned from passing references in pop culture, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect when I had the opportunity to visit the town and the surrounding communities of the Coachella Valley in Southern California last May.


It turns out it's a bit of both. The warm weather makes it a popular vacation resort in the winter, but in the summer temperatures can reach a withering 120 degrees. The natural desert landscape is barren, but a large aquifer, fed by the snow melt from nearby mountain ranges, allows for irrigation and such extravagances as the man-made lake and indoor/outdoor boat taxi at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, where we were staying.

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JW Marritott

This combination of intense sunshine, hot weather, and abundant water makes the Coachella Valley ideally suited for date palms. Which are different, in case you didn't know, from coconut-bearing palm trees. Don't feel bad—I didn't know before my trip either.

Why did I become interested in date palms? It was the giant knight with “Since 1924” on his shield, beckoning to the 1950 visitor center/retail outlet/theater/cafe at Shields Date Garden in Indio, about 23 miles southwest of Palm Springs. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, about the “sex life of the date” in the old movie theater, as well as much of the history of Shields Date Garden and date palm cultivation in the Coachella Valley.

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A Knight

For $5, one can tour the garden where Floyd Shields used to give talks about the process of date cultivation. Later he made a recording of himself and set up a theater for a slideshow, which he playfully titled “Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” The free film that plays there now excerpts portions of that original recording.

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Romance Theatre

Date palms are not native to the area—the California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) that line the main thoroughfare along old CA-111 (now Business Route 111) in Palm Springs are. But date-producing palm trees were imported by federal agricultural researchers in 1890 (according to Wikipedia), and today the Coachella Valley produces 95% of the dates consumed in the US (http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/2397). There's even an annual National Date Festival held in Indio each winter! (See http://www.datefest.org/ for more information.)

After getting all jazzed up on the fascinating history of the date in the theater, I went date crazy in the cafe at Shields Date Garden. I got the date burger with a salad topped with dates and a date milkshake. The date burger was an interesting novelty, but date shakes are the real deal, and are quite popular in the Coachella Valley. They make it a little bit differently at Shields than other locations, using their date crystals, rather than fresh dates. The result is that it has the date flavor, but not chewy bits of date like I found in the shake I got from Hadley's on my way out of the area.

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Date Burger

If you can venture out of the air-conditioned comfort of your hotel, I heartily recommend that you try one. And don't just take it from me, take it from the giant knight who has been beckoning to drivers along CA-111 for more than 60 years. While I'm sure date shakes are delicious wherever you drink them, wouldn't yours be even better when enjoyed on a 1950s stool next to the Romance Theatre?

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About Me

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I love to learn about, visit, photograph, research, and write about everything that is interesting, unique, and historical about Northern California, and wherever else I should be fortunate enough to find myself.  I've spent many years scouring the roadside in my little car for interesting subjects and walking down hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada and along the coast to get to know the wonder that is Northern California.  I share most of this via photos on Flickr, and as much as time permits me to on my blog, the NorCal Explorer.  Fine art prints of my photos are for sale on Imagekind.