Israeli scientists grow palm from 2,000-year-old seed at Masada

I heard about this on the Radio 4 news, and though it’s not strictly relevant to teaching Classics, it’s fascinating. From Ha Aretz

Israeli scientists grow palm from 2,000-year-old seed at Masada


Israeli scientists have succeeded in getting a 2,000-year-old date seed to sprout and grow into a palm of a native type that had been extinct for hundreds of years.

The seed – nicknamed Methusaleh after the oldest person in the
Bible -was found in the ancient fortress of Masada, on a hilltop in the
Judean desert by the Dead Sea where Jewish zealots committed mass
suicide to avoid surrender to the Romans in the first century CE.

Project manager Sarah Sallon hopes the palm will prove to be a fruit-bearing
female, but that she will know only in a few years time, when the now
more than 1.20-metre-tall sprout grows into a palm tree.

If another of the seeds found at Masada can be cultivated and proves to be male, the two trees will be able to reproduce.

Israel, which now grows only imported date species originating from
countries like Morocco, Egypt and Iraq, would be able to cultivate its
own native kind: the Judean date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera in Latin,
hundreds of years after it died out.

It is no surprise therefore that Sallon sounds excited. According to the first-century Roman author, zoologist and botanist Pliny the Elder, “huge” forests of date palms stretched in his time from the Sea of Galilee in what is now northern Israel to the Dead Sea in the south, she explains.

Pliny, she adds, described the Judean dates as delicious and especially large. They were also said to have medicinal properties, used against “spitting blood” – probably meaning tuberculosis – and
stomach problems, including diarrhea. Sallon, who runs a natural medicine research centre at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, wants to study those medicinal properties.

But after the Romans conquered the region in the first century CE
and as a result of other invasions, the date palm forests, which she
explains need careful and continuous cultivation, gradually died out.

By the Crusader period, or the late Middle Ages, “almost nothing was left of those plantations,” Sallon explains.

“Date trees are like children. You have to look after them,” she
says, explaining that the Babylonians discovered 5,000 years ago how to
spur pollination by manually bringing the male pollen to the female, by
physically climbing the trees.

The British-born Israeli and her co-worker, plant specialist Elaine
Solowey, planted Methuselah and two other date seeds found at the same
location in January 2005. Only Methuselah began sprouting.

The seeds were found at Masada during the 1963-65 excavations of
the fortress built in the first century BC by Jewish Roman King Herod
the Great.

They were stored at room temperature for four decades by the
keepers of the artifacts collection of world-renowned Israeli
archeologist – and former army chief of staff – Yigael Yadin, who had
led the excavations at Masada.

“In 2005 I went, and begged them to give me some seeds,” says Sallon.

She believes the high summer temperatures and low precipitation at
Masada may have contributed to the seeds’ exceptional longevity, by
minimizing the creation of free radicals.

Sallon and her co-workers sent two other date seeds found at Masada
as well as fragments of the seed to the University of Zurich for
radiocarbon dating, which found that they were 2,000 years old. The
carbon dating also matched the historic dating of when Masada
functioned as a pleasure palace for King Herod.

“To date, the oldest seed to grow into a plant was 1,300 years old
and that of a lotus – found in a dried-up lake in China and cultivated
at the University of California,” says Sallon.

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