Ten years since the Judean Date Palm was miraculously brought back to life following the chance discovery of seeds in the 2,000-year-old ruins of Masada, the male date palm tree named Methuselah, the only one of his kind, has become a father.
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 wiped out 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.
The mountaintop fortress of Masada where the ancient seeds of the Judean date palm were recovered. Masada. Photo source: UNESCO.org
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, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, 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.
“Methuselah”, the only example of a Judean Date Palm located at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel (Wikimedia Commons)
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 now he has become a father.
“He is over three meters [ten feet] tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey told National Geographic. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild [modern] female, and yeah, he can make dates.”
Solowey now hopes she will be able to plant an ancient date grove. To do that, she would need to grow a female plant from an ancient seed as a mate for Methuselah, and it’s looking promising – Solowey has managed to sprout a small handful of other date palms from ancient seeds recovered at archaeological sites around the Dead Sea, and at least two of them are female.
Solowey hopes to one day have a whole grove of Judean date palms like this grove of date palms of another species pictured in Spain (Wikimedia Commons)
“We would know what kind of dates they ate in those days and what they were like,” Solowey said. “That would be very exciting.”
Featured image: The resurrected Judean date palm in Israel. (Wikimedia Commons)