2,000-year-old seeds to a Judean date palm tree that was long thought to be extinct have been found hidden in an ancient jar in Israel.
What’s more amazing is that not only have they been found, they have also sprouted and are thriving, according to Israeli researchers who are cultivating the historic plant.
“It’s 80 centimeters [3 feet] high with nine leaves, and it looks great,” said Sarah Sallon, director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) in Jerusalem.
For thousands of years, Judean date palm trees were one of the most recognizable and welcome sights for people living in the Middle East according to TreeHugger.com. They were also widely cultivated throughout the region for their sweet fruit, and for the cool shade they offered from the blazing desert sun.
From its founding some 3,000 years ago, to the dawn of the Common Era, the trees became a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, even garnering several shout-outs in the Old Testament.
Judean palm trees would come to serve as one of the kingdom’s chief symbols of good fortune; King David named his daughter, Tamar, after the plant’s name in Hebrew.
By the time the Roman Empire sought to usurp control of the kingdom in 70 AD, broad forests of these trees flourished as a staple crop to the Judean economy — a fact that made them a prime resource for the invading army to destroy.
“Sadly, around the year 500 AD, the once plentiful palm had been completely wiped out, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest,” Stephen Messenger said, “In the centuries that followed, first-hand knowledge of the tree slipped from memory to legend. Up until recently, that is.”
During excavations at the site of Herod the Great’s palace in Israel in the early 1960’s, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years.
For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University.
But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.
“I said, Thank you. What do you want me to do?” Solowey recalls. Told to germinate them, she said, “You want me to do what?”
Tests were ran on the seeds and carbon dating indicated that they were about 2,000 years old.
Solowey, director of the experimental orchard and the NMRC cultivation site at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, focuses primarily on finding new crops that grow well in the arid Middle East climate.
By January Solowey had done enough research on revitalizing the seeds to get the project off the ground.
First she soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed.
She occasionally checked on the plants for a few months, and in March she noticed cracked soil in one of the pots—a sure sign of sprouts.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I did everything to avoid contamination, so it had to be that seed. And by March 18 I could see it was a date shoot.”
The first leaves were almost white with gray lines. They looked like corduroy but felt totally flat, Solowey said. She thought the plant would never survive. But by June healthier-looking leaves were growing on the young tree.
As time progresses, she said, the leaves continue to look even healthier. They even nick-named the tree “Methuselah” after the oldest guy in the Bible.
The researchers are now repeating the experiment with another batch of the ancient seeds to see if their success was a “one in a million” stroke of luck or if their technique can more readily bring ancient seeds to life, Sallon said.
Solowey, who also works for Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said it already appears the ancient plant has some interesting differences from modern dates.
If Methuselah bears fruit, Sallon and her colleagues will study its medicinal properties in hopes of better understanding what made the Judean date so famous in antiquity.
“Maybe there are genes there that have actually died out or become extinct [in modern dates], in which case [the sapling] has very exciting possibilities for date cultivation as well,” Sallon said.
If funds can be found, the researchers hope to apply any novel properties to modern medicines.
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