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Reborn ancient palm tree saplings    . Source: Guy Eisner / Sciencemag.

Fabled Palm Trees Reborn From Ancient Seeds In Israel

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In Israel, researchers have managed to cultivate palm trees from seeds that date back to the ancient world. They were able to grow palm saplings that are similar to those once grown in ancient Judea. These trees produced famous dates, but they had become extinct because of war and invasions.

A team led by Sarah Sallon of the Haddassah Medical Organisation in Israel was testing and examining a number of seeds that were uncovered in several archaeological sites. They all came from an area between the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea and they were taken from ancient palaces, fortresses, and caves.

This area was once a thriving oasis agricultural economy in the Kingdom of Judea, and it was famous for its dates. Science Advances reports that “These so-called ‘Judean dates’ grown in plantations around Jericho and the Dead Sea were recognized by classical writers for their large size, sweet taste, extended storage, and medicinal properties”.

Morphology of six germinated ancient Judean date seeds before planting. (Guy Eisner / Sciencemag)

Morphology of six germinated ancient Judean date seeds before planting. (Guy Eisner / Sciencemag)

Famous Dates

They were exported throughout the Roman and later Byzantine Empires. It is believed that the date plantations went into decline especially during the Crusades (11 th century AD). It is thought that the legendary Judean date palms had disappeared by the 19 th century. However, their memory was preserved in the works of writers such as the Roman Pliny the Elder.

In 2008 the same team was able to germinate a single ancient palm seed. Researchers measured the seeds and found that they were much bigger than modern examples. This would indicate that the Judean dates were bigger than those today.

Science Alert quotes the researchers, as saying that “several types of Judean dates are also described in antiquity including the exceptionally large ‘Nicolai variety’”. This was up to 4 inches (11.5 centimeters) in length.

Extinct Palm Brought Back to Life

The researchers selected 34 out of the hundreds of seeds found in Judean archaeological sites and one was set aside as a control sample. They were “then soaked in water and fertilizer to encourage germination” according to Science Alert .

Amazingly after many centuries lying dormant, 6 of the seeds germinated and the ancient seeds produced green palm saplings. These have been named after the archaeological sites where they were found.

Germinated ancient Judean date seedlings. Ages in months at time of photograph (A to C) Adam (110 months), Jonah (63 months), and Uriel (54 months). (D to F) Boaz (54 months), Judith (47 months), and Hannah (88 months). (Guy Eisner / Sciencemag)

Germinated ancient Judean date seedlings. Ages in months at time of photograph (A to C) Adam (110 months), Jonah (63 months), and Uriel (54 months). (D to F) Boaz (54 months), Judith (47 months), and Hannah (88 months). (Guy Eisner / Sciencemag)

The saplings allowed researchers to carbon date the seeds and they ranged in date from the 2nd century AD to the 3rd century BC. Then the team conducted a genetic analysis of the seeds using microsatellite genotyping techniques.

Their results show that “exchanges of genetic material occurred between the Middle East (eastern) and North Africa (western) date palm gene pools”. This means that the Judean plantation had palm trees that were hybrids of North African and Middle Eastern varieties.

Ancient Date Palm Tree Plantations

The results are offering unprecedented insights into the sophistication of the date plantations in Judea. “The earliest exploitation and consumption of dates is from the Arabian Neolithic some 7,000 years ago” according to Advances in Science.

It appears that the Judean farmers were able to cultivate date palms by using advanced breeding techniques. The New Scientist reports that “genetic analysis showed that several of them came from female date palms that were pollinated by male palms from different areas”.

It appears that the Judean farmer deliberately bred the eastern and varieties of palms, which allowed them to produce the legendary dates. This meant that they were able to grow superior fruit and turn their plantations into successful commercial enterprises. These, in turn, were crucial to the ancient economy of the region and helped to fund the lavish building projects of monarchs such as Herod the Great .

Rows of palm trees on a tree farm near Dead Sea, Israel. (Dmitry / Adobe Stock)

Rows of palm trees on a tree farm near Dead Sea, Israel. ( Dmitry / Adobe Stock)

Unlocking Secrets of the Seeds

Researchers “don’t know exactly how the seeds managed to last this long and still be viable” according to Inverse. They are trying to determine how the seeds were able to miraculously survive in the desert for 2 millennia.

It is believed that it was a result of the dry and arid conditions. It is also believed that palm trees were specially adapted, and this allowed them to flourish in the extreme conditions of the Judean deserts.

The palm saplings can help scientists to better understand how to preserve seeds and to ensure their longevity. According to Science Advances , they could “have important implications on plant adaptation to changing environments and for biodiversity conservation and seed banking”. This could help scientists to produce seeds that could adapt better to extreme environments which is very important as our climate changes .

Oldest Germinated Seeds

The seeds that were grown by the researchers are possibly the oldest known to be germinated. New Scientist reports that “previously, the world’s oldest germinated seed was a 1,300 year-old Chinese lotus seed recovered from a dried lakebed in China”.

Sallon and her team now are attempting to grow the ancient dates once more by pollinating females with males. Someday, modern people may taste the dates that were so popular with the Romans and the Greeks.

Top image: Reborn ancient palm tree saplings    . Source: Guy Eisner / Sciencemag.

By Ed Whelan

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