The White Palms of Elche
The first time I saw a braided white palm from Elche (Elx) was in Seville, it was tied to a balcony in the street where my husband and I were staying. It was such a lovely object; the perfect marriage of rustic material and delicate, complex form. I began to see them tied to many balconies around the city, each one was uniquely beautiful and I was curious. Imagining that they were connected to the Easter celebrations of the previous week I asked my friend Mariña Regueiro about them and she replied “they are from Elche! Every year big trucks full of palms go all over Spain for Palm Sunday”.
Elche is a city in the Province of Alicante and is home to the “Palmeral of Elche” the largest palm grove in Europe and the most northerly. A world heritage site, the palm grove was begun during the middle ages under Arab rule, but continued to be a fundamental part of the city’s identity even after the Reconquista of the area by Christians, indeed the area was reconquered by Christians in the 14th century and it is from this same period that the first document detailing a parade with palms in Elche for Palm Sunday belongs; dated 1371.
It appears that the art of weaving or braiding these beautiful white palms also began very early and that the tradition of cultivating white palm leaves is specific to the Mediterranean region. The only other place where white palm is cultivated in the same way is Bordighera on the Ligurian coast in Italy, a place which had strong economic and cultural ties with Spain. The white/pale yellow leaves are grown by binding the crown of the palm trees into a cone shape so that the sunlight does not reach the new leaves which are growing in the centre, a process which is similar to the cultivation of white asparagus. Apart from Palm Sunday these white palm leaves have been traditionally associated with the cult of the virgin both in pagan and Christian symbolism.
The palms of Elche are unique in their intricacy and beauty. The way in which the palm grove has been protected by UNESCO and woven palm industry supported by the incredibly strong sense of pride and tradition which is at the heart of Spanish culture, has allowed this special skill to survive into the present and will hopefully continue into the future. For me, these palms serve as a reminder of the value of creating things of beauty and of the infinite creativity and skill of human hands.
The palm grove and weaving workshops of Elche will be one of the stops on our Textiles in Southern Spain tour next April, for more information click here