Israeli doctors and scientists have succeeded in germinating a date seed that is nearly 2,000 years old.
The seed, nicknamed Methuselah, was taken from an excavation at Masada, the cliff fortress where, in 73 AD, 960 Jewish zealots died by their own hand rather than surrender to a Roman assault. The point is to find out what was so exceptional about the original date palm of Judea, much praised in the Bible and the Koran for its shade, food, beauty and medicinal qualities, but destroyed by the crusaders.
"The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree," says Psalm 92. "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. They shall be fat and flourishing."
Well, we'll see. Sarah Sallon, who runs a project on medicinal plants of the Middle East, notes that the date-palm tree in ancient times symbolized the tree of life. But Elaine Solowey, who germinated the seed and is growing it in quarantine, says plants grown from ancient seeds "usually keel over and die soon," having used most of their nutrients in remaining alive.
The plant is now 29.9cm tall and has produced seven leaves, one of which was removed for DNA testing. Radiocarbon dating in Switzerland on a snip of the seed showed it to be 1,990 years old, plus or minus 50 years. So the date seed dates from 35 BC to 65 AD, just before the famed Roman siege.
Three date seeds were taken from Level 34 of the Masada dig. They were found in a storeroom and are presumably from dates eaten by the defenders, Sallon says.
Mordechai Kislef, director of botanical archeology at Bar-Ilan University, had some date seeds from Ehud Netzer,who excavated Masada in the 1970s.
"They were sitting in a drawer, and when I asked for one, he said, `You're mad,' but finally gave me three," Sallon said. "Then I gave them to Elaine, who's an expert on arid agriculture and dates."
Solowey said: "Well, I didn't have much hope that any would come up, but you know how Sarah is."
Sallon, who is a pediatric gastroenterologist trained at University College, London, came to Israel 20 years ago. She is the director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Organization, which she set up 10 years ago to study natural products and therapies, from Tibetan and Chinese medicine to the indigenous medicinal plants of the Middle East.
Solowey, who teaches agriculture and sustainable farming at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev, works on finding new crops for arid and saline areas like Jordan, Gaza and Morocco. She also works with Sallon to domesticate indigenous plants that appear to have medicinal uses.
She planted the date seeds at the end of January after trying to draw them out of their deep dormancy. She first soaked the seeds in hot water to soften the coat, then in an acid rich in hormones, then in an enzymatic fertilizer made of seaweed and other nutrients.
"I've done other recalcitrant seeds," she said. "It wasn't a project with a high priority. I had no idea if the food in the seed was still good, but I put them in new pots in new potting soil and plugged them into drip irrigation and kind of forgot about them."
About six weeks later, she said, "I saw the earth cracked in a pot and, much to my astonishment, one of these came up."
The first two leaves looked odd, she said. "But the third looked like a date leaf with lines, and every one since has looked more and more normal -- like it had a hard time getting out of the seed."
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