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
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!"
27-09-21 - 13:33GMT
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