Shields Date Gardens, Indio CA
I drove up to a fruit stand in Indio, California and asked the proprietor if he had dates, to which he replied, “No”. I then asked if he had nuts – he responded with, “If I had nuts I’d have dates”, then sent me off to Shields Date Gardens (where they have more dates than Sheryl Crow). You like blonde? They’ve got blonde. You like brunette? They’ve got brunette. Ever make a date shake? They do, hundreds of times on a daily basis. And porn? How about continuous showings of the film, “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date” What is this place, Val, a gentlemen’s club in the middle of the desert? Of course not. But everything I’ve said is true (except for the part about the fruit stand, and I don’t know whether or not Sheryl Crow owns a date orchard). Shields started from humble beginnings – in 1924 Floyd Shields and his wife Bess drove out to the desert with the impossible dream of growing dates. Dates are tricky – they require considerable water but no rain, take over a decade before bearing fruit and reproduce with such difficulty that it’s a miracle they produce fruit at all. Floyd used to take time from the arduous work of dating to lecture people who stopped by on the how-tos of date growing. After a while he incorporated a slide show which became affectionately known as “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date” (which is oddly family friendly). This has evolved into a constantly running film in a tiny, slightly dark theater; there’s no sticky floor here, even though dates have high sugar content (you knew where that was going, didn’t you?).
Initially walking through the doors of the 1950s store and packaging shop you will encounter the counter where their famous date shakes are made. How do you make a date shake, you ask? Well, you pig, since chopping the dates fine enough to blend has proven to be a dilemma, Shields developed what he called “date crystals”. These are dried and reconstituted with water shortly before being blended with milk and vanilla ice cream. The shakes are cold, rich, thick and sweet enough to make your head cave in. I’m not a big fan of overly sweet things, but the milky, carmelly goodness was delicious (although a bottled water chaser was in order afterwards). Date shake in hand, discretely take your seat in the theater for the lurid tale of the sex life of the date. Unlike other plants, date palms are either male or female. The long, firm stamen of the male palm (blushing) is coated with pollen, which in nature blows onto the eagerly awaiting blooms on the female palm (if the male gets lucky). In the date garden, the stamen is removed (ouch!) and then shaken onto the female blooms by workers on ladders, which although effective, takes all the fun out of it. The dates are culled, protected from the rain and breakage from the weight of the cluster and then harvested with ladders permanently attached to the tree. As the tree grows, lengths are added to the ladders above and below.
The gardens themselves are pretty, but plain – acres of a wide variety of palms bearing Medjool, honey, Khadrawi, Barhi, Ahidi, Halawi, Deleget, blonde and brunette dates (which are specially bred at Shields). In order to maintain consistent quality, the palms are not allowed to cross breed, and new palms are cultivated from cuttings off the original trees. The place is a flurry of activity in February, in time for the nearby Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, which features camel and ostrich racing. A garden center has just opened and they are in the process of building a “biblical garden” in the groves (whatever that is), but the funny thing is that as trippy and kitschy as the place is, you actually walk away with an education and a smile. Add this to the free admission, samples of their dates and a date shake bogo coupon available in the local “things to do” magazine available free in the shop, and you end up what turns out to be a cheap date.