Ancient Tree Resurrected

The extinct tree which has resurrected from ancient seeds


For thousands of years, the date palm was a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, as it was a source of food, shelter and shade.  Thick forests of the palms towering up to 80 feet and spreading for 7 miles covered the Jordan River valley from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south.

So valued was the tree that it became a recognized as a symbol of good fortune in Judea.  It is chronicled in the Bible, Quran and ancient literature for its diverse powers, from an aphrodisiac to a contraceptive, and as a cure for a wide range of diseases including cancer, malaria and toothache.

However, its value was also the source of its demise and eventual extinction.  The tree so defined the local economy that it became a prime resource for the invading Roman army to destroy.  Once the Roman Empire took control of the kingdom in 70 AD, the date palms were destroyed in an attempt to cripple the Jewish economy. They eventually succeeded and by 500 AD the once plentiful palm had completely disappeared, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest.

But all was not lost, because in 1963, the late archeologist Yigael Yadin began excavating Masada, a mountaintop fortress built over 2,000 years ago on the shore of the Dead Sea where King Herod built a spectacular palace. Masada was the last stand of a small band of Jewish rebels who held out against three Roman legions for several years before committing mass suicide in A.D. 73.

Buried beneath the rubble, Yadin 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 assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong. After eight weeks, a small green shoot emerged from one seed, producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries and becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.  The plant was nicknamed "Methuselah," after the longest-lived person in the Bible.

The first leaves were plagued with white spots, which the researchers put down to insufficient nutrients and it was thought that the plant would never survive. But as time progressed, the leaves began to look healthier. 

In 2011, the plant produced its first flowers and today, the living archaeological treasure continues to grow and thrive.  Researchers have now turned her attention to whether the ancient tree had any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today’s palm varieties.

"Dates were famous in antiquity for medicinal value," said Solowey. "They were widely used for different kinds of diseases—cancers, TB [tuberculosis]—all kinds of problems."

Solowey has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life as part of a 10-year project to study plants and herbs used as ancient cures. She has grown plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures to see whether their effectiveness can be scientifically proved. In experiments praised by the Dalai Lama, for example, Borick Center Director Sarah Sallon has shown that ancient Tibetan cures for cardiovascular disease really do work.

The Methuselah plant may be crossbred with its closest living relative, the Hiyani date from Egypt, to generate fruit by 2022.

By April Holloway

Related Links

Researchers Resurrect Extinct Judean Date Palm Tree from 2,000-Year-Old Seed

"Methuselah" Tree Grew From 2,000-Year-Old Seed

2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving

Seed of extinct date palm sprouts after 2,000 years

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nisa burkay's picture

Wow that's so very cool!

Nisa Carroll Burkay

I too wonder if this is a specific species as date palms have been cultivated forever. If this is indeed a specific species, the author should make that clear and name the species. I clicked on the link from Facebook because I remember date palms being grown and harvested in the San Diego area in the early 60's.

שבח לאל Thank God for the faithfulness of his people though the ages - to leave these seeds, and to find and nurture one to grow. While waiting for the results of cross-pollination with the Egyptian 'date' ;-) I pray that more seeds be given to the researcher (and proud mama!) Dr. Solowey - and that at least one is a female!

While indeed, roughly speaking, this was just one date palm species, it is not as we just lost and than recovered say, Granny Smith apple variety. Catch is that this was one of the foundation species, lost long ago, during early agriculture. It would be as if we lost all apple species from certain region and all derived species (in this case, regional varieties never emerged and were never incorporated further into the general genetics of date palms). It is biologically very, very likely that this particular branch contains a lot of new genetic material and properties. Add to that fact that at the time this was a key crop, those new qualities are very likely to be useful (people grow what performs well, we up to now lost all the work that defined that species).

Yes, it look like the Judean date palm is a specific cultivar of the species (phoenix dactylifera), once prized for its particular flavor and juiciness.

So it's not like apples went extinct and were resurrected. More like, if we lost the Cortland or Granny Smith or Red/White Delicious for 2,000 years, then somebody persuaded some mummified pips to sprout...


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