“As we approached Elche, we could already make out its valley resplendent with fruits and its immense Palm Grove, the most extensive and most beautiful in Europe, the most luxuriant in all of Spain.
A Journey through Spain
Hans Christian Andersen (1862)
To live surrounded by palm trees is not, in Elche, an impossible dream. From the day of their birth in the hospital to their final farewell in the monumental Old Cemetery, full of flowers, the Ilicitanos (people of Elche) work, study, practice sport, dream, sleep, fall in love, stroll, have fun, enjoy art, in short, live life to the full, surrounded by the swaying branches of palm trees.
The city may not be understood, nor its citizens understand themselves, without taking into consideration the historic Palm Grove, which has provided a unique urban landscape for more than a thousand years, and which was declared a World Heritage site in the year 2000.
More than 200,000 palm trees
With more than 200,000 palm trees, 50,000 of them in the town´s nurseries ready to be transplanted, the Palm Grove of Elche is the largest in Europe. Although, when viewed from a distance, it may appear to be a great forest, it is, in reality, a plantation with an agriculture purpose. Hence the plots of palm trees or their groupings are called “huertos” or orchards. Each of the plots is flanked by rows of palm trees, in such a way that, as seen from the air, they form a grid pattern. The terraces created within the plots have traditionally been dedicated to agricultural production.
Although the existence of palm trees throughout the south of Europe since before the presence of mankind has been proven, the decline in temperatures and the Ice Ages put an end to the majority of them, with the exception of some warmer areas which were protected from the cold, such as Elche. The profusion of drawings of palms and palm trees on the Iberian ceramics of La Alcudia (third to first century B.C.) demonstrates the existing importance of date palms at that time.
The expansion of palm grove took place after the foundation by the Arabs of the new city on its current site (eighth and ninth centuries), with the construction of an extensive network of irrigation channels, mostly still in existence today. The survival of this system of agricultural oasis over many centuries was one of the aspects which was taken into account for the Unesco declaration.
Currently, the Palm Grove´s role is more as a landscape and a cultural asset than as an agricultural site. The latter function focuses on the production of white palms for Palm Sunday, which are sold throughout Spain and even abroad, and on small harvests of dates for the local market. They have also begun to produce varieties of palm tree for sale which have been developed in laboratories.