Palmeral of Elche
Palmeral Of Elche
Cultural Spain Europe And North America Province Of Alicante, Autonomous Community Of Valencia

The Palmeral (palm groves) of Elche represent a remarkable example of the transference of a characteristic landscape from one culture and continent to another, in this case from North Africa to Europe. The palm grove or garden is a typical feature of the North African landscape which was brought to Europe during the Islamic occupation of much of the Iberian peninsula and has survived to the present day at Elche. The ancient irrigation system, which is still functioning, is of special interest.

This is the only palm grove of its type anywhere on the European continent, which makes it an exceptional landscape in this geographical context. Arab geographers and European travellers have testified to this exceptional quality throughout history. In addition to the authentic wild forest, many palm trees are cultivated in gardens, the remains of Arab agriculture established over eight centuries ago on the Iberian Peninsula. Archaeological data from the Iberian and Roman periods indicate that these plantations are in fact much older than the Arab palm grove. There is also what survives of a settlement or an urban plan, which can be seen from the cartography of the region. The central core of the town is surrounded by a series of palm gardens before reaching the rural area proper, where these are more widely scattered, even appearing to be natural woods, without human involvement. Palms also form an essential component of the culture of Elche, manifesting itself in many ways - the processions on Palm Sunday, the Night of the Kings, the town's coat of arms. The origins of the Elche palm grove are attributed to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the 1st millennium BC, since dates formed part of their diet. It was with the Arab invasion in the 8th century AD that they began to be cultivated;a network of irrigation canals enabled the brackish waters of the VinalopóRiver to be used. The town was moved northwards to a new location and surrounded palm groves, so as to recreate landscape reminiscent of that of North Africa, from whence the new settlers came.

Elche was recaptured in 1265 during the reign of Jaime I and its lands were redistributed. The fertile lands on the left bank, irrigated by the main canal (Sequia Major) were granted to those who assisted in the reconquest;this area contained many groves of date palms, some of which survive to the present day. There were no groves on the right bank (the Magram), where the lands were assigned to Muslim vassals (Moriscos);however, despite the lower fertility of this area, its farmers achieved a high degree of productivity, which was to degenerate sadly when the Moriscos were expelled in 1606.

The area of palm groves went on producing large crops, but these diminished as the town spread in this direction in the 17th century and the palm trees were cut down. This process was exacerbated with industrialization and the arrival of the railway in the 19th century. It was not until the 1920s that the danger to the groves was recognized, and in the 1930s legislation was put in place to ensure the continuance of what remained, to be completed with the passage of the Law on the Protection of the Elche Palm Grove in 1986.

The date palm trees of Elche are a dioecious species native to western Asia and North Africa. They can grow to a height of more than 30 m and live for over 300 years. The palm groves form a compact group in the eastern part of the town. The boundaries of the plots (huertos ) are rectilinear, so they are mostly square or rectangular (a few triangular) in plan. They are bounded by cascabots (fences of plaited dried palm leaves) or plastered walls of undressed stone 1-2 m high. The plots contain the houses of the tenants or owners of the land, although these are mostly in a ruinous condition in the plots nearest the centre of town. The trees are planted in single or double rows, following the lines of the irrigation canals. They produce dates for human consumption and the 'White Palm' leaves, widely all over the Iberian Peninsula for decoration and processional use on Palm Sunday. This area is clearly defined by the natural feature of the VinalopóRiver, the historic centre of Elche, and recently developed perimeter areas zoned for non-residential use, largely not built.