Worldwide, there are 3,000 varieties of date palms. These are Medjool date groves.

Lee Allen/ARIZONA FREELANCE

Worldwide, there are 3,000 varieties of date palms. These are Medjool date groves.

How One Indian Couple Saved the ‘Fruit of Kings’

Medjool dates, the amber-brown fruit of the date palm that originated in Morocco, have been around some 6,000 years—one of the oldest-known cultivated tree crops that helped sustain desert peoples and nomadic wanderers of the Middle East and North Africa. 

The gourmet “fruit of kings” was considered a delicacy and all went well with cultivation of these succulent treats until a disaster struck and Medjools ended up discovering a new home in the U.S. as an oddity of nature and a quirk of fate. rather than as a carefully planned agricultural program of propagation. 

And were it not for one creative-thinking botanist and two dedicated Native Americans in Nevada, that story might never have been told. “This is an unparalleled achievement considered to be one of the greatest long-term success stories in the history of world horticulture,” according to Marc Paulsen, author of The Amazing Story of the Fabulous Medjool Date.

About the time of the panic that surrounded the stock market crash in this country, date growers in Morocco were experiencing a similar catastrophe in the form of a devastating date palm disease that had nearly wiped out nearly all Medjool date palms leaving the species on the verge of extinction.

“We entered one date garden after another only to find the disease in nearly every one of them,” wrote botanist Dr. Walter Swingle. The horticultural visionary finally found one garden that did not display any signs of the malady and he quickly acquired eleven disease-free Medjool palm offshoots, sending them to the U.S. for transplanting.

They arrived in Washington, D.C. in June 1927 where the federal plant quarantine folks fumigated them and sent them to an isolated point in southern Nevada that touches the Colorado River upriver from Needles, California. 

Indian Agent Frank Thackery picked up the trail at that point: “I arrived there in an old Ford Model T coupe in July when the temperature was 117 degrees, arranging for delivery of the date offshoots to the hut of an elderly and physically handicapped Indian man named Johnson and his equally elderly and nearly-blind wife, both members of the Chemehuevi tribe.”

The pair lived remotely, a hardscrabble existence surviving off the land by using their traditional knowledge of how to survive in inhospitable surroundings.

Near the family hut was an old well, dug deep enough to tap underground water from the Colorado to irrigate the eleven plants. Johnson agreed to turn on the windmill as needed to keep the offshoots  watered and a fence was built to keep the dates away from wild ponies. After earnest prayers from an Indian Medicine Man, Johnson took over the care of the trees.

“I was asked why I employed aging and physically limited caretakers for this important mission,” Thackery wrote. “There were several good reasons.  No one else was easily available and the husbands  physical condition assured me he would not be leaving for extended absences. This perhaps represented a rare case where old age and rheumatism became assets rather than liabilities. Both Johnson and his wife were seriously in need of the modest compensation I arranged and they attended to their job faithfully for seven years until the entire planting was relocated. Johnson told me he had asked the Great Spirit to help him make the sick plants grow,” and they prospered (with the exception of two that were dug up by dogs), reducing the number of imported offshoots from eleven to nine.

Those nine remaining shoots were kept in isolation for several more years until they and sixty-four newly-developed offshoots were moved to the U.S. Date Garden in Indio in the summer of 1935.  Author Paulsen called it “a hair-breadth rescue from absolute disappearance on the planet.”

Since that miraculous recovery—kept alive by the dedication of two Indigenous people—the date industry of Medjools (as well as Deglet Noor, Halaway, and Zahidi varieties) has grown and prospered in Yuma, Arizona, and California’s Bard Valley.

Isabel Nunez of Imperial Date Gardens is a long-time proponent of “heritage agriculture” and over the last 40-plus years has increased his acreage to become the largest Medjool producer in Bard Valley, employing more than 200 employees at peak season.  On the other side of the Colorado River lies  Martha’s Gardens in Yuma, a 20-plus-year-old date farm that has grown from 300 shoots to over 8,000 date palms on 100 acres. Operations Manager Jason Rogers says with pride, “We raise our dates like we raise our children—with love.”
 

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