Elche - A European Palm Grove

Arguably Europe's most famous palms, and certainly the most numerous.
Pedro Gimenez Peon, Santa Pola, Alicante, Spain
Chamaerops No.32 Autumn 1998

Typical scene in Elche, Spain. A few of the many Phoenix dactylifera for which the town is famous.

In Europe, there are three principal palmgroves: Greta in Greece, Bordighera in Italy and Elche in Spain. Here we will learn a little about the Spanish one. In south east of the country in Alicante province, there is a place that has kept a treasure for us. Within the boundaries of the city there is a palm grove, with from 300,000 to 400,000 palms. They belong to the species Phoenix dactylifera, as you know, the common date palm. And what is this palmy place doing in Europe? Where did the palms come from? Traditionally when someone is asked about their origin, rather than admit ignorance, be would answer anything, attributing it to the Moors or the Phoenicians.

From the beginning of the century many people have questioned this. The Moors theory can be discarded on the testimony of the Romans, like Pliny II (Old Pliny) that wrote about the existence of palms in the east of Spain in the year 77 a.d. You can use the same case with the Phoenicians. If we want to look for the origin we need the help of the palaeontology. They say the Eocene period is rich in palms, Sabal major for example, has been found in the London and the Paris Eocene clay. In the Alps, Oligocene clay has shown fossils that belong to the "Phoenicites" genus, botanically the precedent of the present Phoenix.

But this European palm paradise has suffered the attack of the ice ages that made only habitable protected zones in the south of the continent. This is the case of Elche with a special microclimate protected by the mountains and open to the Mediterranean Sea. In the same way Edouardo Beccari's theory of Middle Eastern Px. dactylifera origin was refuted by Drude, who pointed out that in the large quantity of excavations in this zone no Px dactylifera fossil was found. The old staying in this place is demonstrated by a funerary present containing palm seeds found near the city and dated using the C14 method to 5.000 years.

This native origin, like an ice ages survivor, is confirmed by the illustrious botanist and palm specialist Chabaud who at the end of the last century affirmed the possibility of cultivating palms 8 to 16 degrees higher than their origin. Other characteristics of this palm grove that give it personality and make it different from the Middle Eastern ones, Africans and the rest of the world is a unique cultivating distribution and the 'white palm' tradition.

The palm leaves when growing are wrapped tightly and thus, growing in the absence of light, take on a yellowish-white colouring and are used on Palm Sunday and as the raw material to make baskets, bats and hand-made articles. Those palm trees assigned to produce 'white palm' can be recognized because their crowns have been gathered in, in the shape of a cone, to prevent the light from entering the leaves that will grow during the year. This 'white palm' tradition is shared in the world with the brother Italian palm-grove of Bordighera that has its roots in the old Mediterranean culture. In classical mythology, 'white palm' is associated with the cult of the virgin goddess Proserpina, as a symbol of virginity and a key for the dead to accede to the "Elysian Fields", where heaven was.

Having spoken about the origin and its uniqueness, it is time to take a walk through the Palmgrove itself. There are two principal places, the public park called 'Parque Municipal' and the private garden "Huerto del Cura" (Curate's Garden). In the Park Municipal more than variety is the large quantity of palms principally Px dactylifera and in less quantity, Washingtonia species, Px canariensis, very interesting and massive Chamaerops and others like Livistona chinensis, Archontophoenix, Brahea armata, Roystonea regia, etc... can be enjoyed. The true attraction of this park is the Egyptian and Moorish layout with ponds and fountains. If you prefer, you can take a little train which does the tourist route (there is information in one corner of the park).

Sited in the unique landscape of the Huerto del Cura. and within the very limits of millennial Elche, the garden is the melting-pot where the Levantine countryman's exquisite care for his land mingles with the innate taste for beauty of the inhabitants of this district. Here the typical Mediterranean crops such as lemon, oranges, pomegranates, carob and jujube-trees grow together with date palms, bird of paradise flowers and Polynesian Hibiscus, a good environment where you can enjoy Roystonea elata, Px reclinata, Px roebelenii, Dypsis decaryi, Ptychosperma elegant, Hyophorbe revaughanii, Raphis excelsa, Dypsis lutescens, Chamaedorea costaricana ... Interesting collections of Cycas revoluta and C. circinalis, massive Chamaerops and others, like Caryota mitis, Brahea armata, Syagrus romanzoffiana, Sabal palmetto, Howea belmoreana and H. forsteriana ... There are also interesting collections of cacti and succulents.

The most important palm is called "The Imperial Palm Tree". It was named after the empress Elizabeth of Austria's stay in Elche, to whom it was dedicated on her visit to the orchard in 1894. This palm is unique in its grandeur, and the oddity of its character lies in the fact that the shoots, which in this species normally grow from the base of the trunk of the younger specimens, (the usual way of vegetal reproduction), spring in a unique fashion, the same in terms of age and height, forming the present huge vegetal chandelier and constituting a very rare specimen amongst palm trees in general. This magnificent eight-brached vegetal chandelier that one can admire weighs more than 10 tones, feeding it self solely from the sap supplied by the the parent trunk. It is about 150 years old, thus is still a relatively young specimen.

The palm-groves, like humanity, have their own health and if we want to check this it hat to be said that it is not without problems. As you know, modern industrial society and its low regard for nature has caused destruction all over the world, and Elche is no exception. Also the introduction of new materials has meant that everything from fruits to trunks are no longer used. All these factors have put the grove in a critical situation, and the new ecological era has arrived just in time. Laws for protection, more care, new utilities are helping the grove. For example, it has been created in Elche, with the collaboration of Spanish Universities and French Agricultural Ministery one of the most advanced palm laboratories in the world dedicated to the reproduction on a large scale of quality palms with "in Vitro" technology, it is called "Estacion Phoenix". In addition the strong demand for ornamental species have meant that actually they are growing in nurseries around the city between 300,000 to 400,000, that make us look for an optimistic new palm millennium. Being such a singular place in our continent we have from here the feeling that is not very known not only between the common people but also in the palm friends community. We hope this will be compensated soon, because UNESCO is about to declare the Elche Palm Grove a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

To finish off I would like to remember one of the first European palm enthusiast, Ulysses, who, in Homer's Odyssey in the eighth century BC, to express hit admiration of the beauty of Nausicaa said: "...that my eyes never have seen a mortal like you, no man, no woman, has impressed me after finding you. Only once I have seen something like you, it was a young palm that grew in Delos next to Apollo's Altar. When I found it I was amazed for a long time because never had grown on the land a palm like this, in the same way I contemplate you with admiration, oh woman!"


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