I’ve been coming to Palm Springs since I was a little kid. My grandparents bought a small condo here, in Palm Desert, when the area was mostly just country clubs, resorts, and sprawling date farms. Driving with them as we went out to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, even major roads would pass by orchards with row after row of huge date palms, right in the middle of the city.
Those orchards are long gone now, replaced by strip malls and housing developments, the land worth much more developed than it was growing fruit. But Palm Springs can still offer some amazing experiences with dates for those so inclined, so I decided to make a date of enjoying dates – a date date, if you will.
My day begins at the San Marcos Date Farm, in Desert Hot Springs, just north of Palm Springs, on the other side of Interstate 10. Entering the front gate off an unpaved road, I am greeted by a dog and then a man, as well as a table full of boxed dates. Small art installations, picnic tables, and hammocks are set up, guarded by chickens and watched over by plants of various shapes and sizes. I immediately love the vibe, almost commune-esque. I spy some date palms toward the back of the property, the desert mountains gleaming in the morning sun behind them, and smile.
Date palms at San Marcos Date Farm
Marcos Juarez has been running this farm for twenty years. His father, Julian, worked in the orchards after immigrating to the United States, and bought the land and trees in his later years. Marcos shows me around the property, his eyes gleaming as he tells me the family story, gazing with pride upon the 62 trees here on this property. (The family owns another property down the street, with another 250 or so trees, but that one is not open to the public.)
Harvest is just ending, and is done by hand by Marcos and his family. He tells me that each adult palm can produce 200 pounds of dates, and sometimes more. While most of the medjool dates – those I am most familiar with – have been harvested, he guides me to a tree of lighter colored, smaller fruit and instructs me to pick and eat one. While most dates I’ve had have been overly sweet to my palate, this is something completely different. Called a deglet nour date, it is firmer, with a milder, almost nutty flavor. I am hooked!
Deglet nour dates under their protective mesh are ready to harvest
Overall, San Marcos Date Farm grows five different varieties of dates, but none are native to California. During World War Two, US soldiers stationed in North Africa were given local dates as part of their rations since they last a long time – up to three weeks out in the heat and a year or more refrigerated. Some of the Americans who fell in love with this new fruit wanted to bring it back to the US, but had a difficult time finding a suitable place to grow dates. A date palm, to thrive and fruit, needs at least 100 days of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and no rain while the fruit is ripening. Here in the Coachella Valley, those conditions are met, so offshoots – each tree can produce up to fifteen or so – were imported and California’s date industry took off. Today, most dates in the United States are grown here, and mostly by small farms like San Marcos. (Marcos tells me that while farms are no longer in the middle of the city, there are actually more date palms in the region than there were when I was that young kid staring out the car window.)
I purchase a couple variety boxes of dates that feature medjool, jumbo medjool, deglet nour, and smaller zahiti dates (these boxes can be purchased online and shipped anywhere in the US), intent on showing those in my family who thought dates overly sweet that they just hadn’t had the right ones, bid Marcos a fond farewell after talking a bit about the Dodgers’ World Series run, and head down the road a few miles. Here, in North Palm Springs is the Windmill Market, said to make the best of one of the area’s local favorites: the date shake.
My variety pack of dates! Clockwise from top: deglet nour, zahiti, jumbo medjool, and medjool.
Windmill Market is named for the wind turbines that fill the western side of the valley and mountain pass, one of the most prominent landmarks when driving from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. It is a small mini-mart, filled with local treats like butterscotch root beer and jerky. But I’m here for the date shake, blended dates and vanilla ice cream. If you want an introduction to dates but are afraid to just grab a handful, this is the way to go. Cool, refreshing, the dates and ice cream balance in a way that’s sweet, but not cloying. Succulent chunks of date clamor up the straw, tickling my tongue and taste buds. On a hot day – and most days here are hot – this is a perfect treat!
The sign says it all!
Palm Springs may not have the huge date orchards of my childhood, but by visiting a small farm, learning all about the fruit, tasting some different varieties, and then experiencing them in shake form, I was able to reconnect with that memory. More importantly, I was able to experience something that I can’t do anywhere else. My date date was a success, and I know yours will be, too!
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