A sapling germinated earlier this year from a 2,000-year-old date palm seed is 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.
Sallon's program is dedicated to the study of complementary and alternative medicines. The center is also interested in conserving the heritage of Middle Eastern plants that have been used for thousands of years.
Sallon wants to see if the ancient tree, nicknamed Methuselah after the oldest person named in the Old Testament of the Bible, has any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today's date palm varieties.
"Dates were famous in antiquity for medicinal value," she said. "They were widely used for different kinds of diseases—cancers, TB [tuberculosis]—all kinds of problems."
She and her colleagues are currently comparing the structure of the sapling to modern date palms and examining DNA from one of the sapling's leaves. The team plans to publish preliminary results in a peer-reviewed journal early next year.
Several ancient date seeds were taken from an excavation at Masada, a historic mountainside fortress, in 1973. In A.D. 73 Jewish Zealots took their own lives at the fortress rather than surrender to the Romans at the end of a two-year siege.
Carbon dating indicates the seeds are about 2,000 years old.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds and gave them to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
The seeds sat untouched in a drawer in Kislev's office until last November, when Sallon asked if she could have a few to pass on to desert agriculture expert Elaine Solowey.
"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?"
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.
"I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" she said.
Tu B'shevat, a Jewish holiday known as the New Year for Trees, fell this year on January 25. Solowey chose that day to plant the seeds in new potting soil, hook them up to a drip irrigation system, and leave them locked up.
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 sapling.
As time progresses, she said, the leaves continue to look even healthier.
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.
Date palms are either male or female. The sex of the sapling is unknown, but the researchers are hoping for a female, which would bear fruit.
If a modern date with similar DNA is found, the researchers may be able to tell the sex of their sapling soon. Otherwise they'll have to wait about four years, when female dates usually begin to bear fruit.
In ancient times the Judean date palm was a staple source of food, shelter, and shade. References to it are made in the Bible, the Koran, and other ancient literature. Judean date palms were wiped out by about A.D. 500.
Today's date trees in Israel were imported during the 1950s and '60s from modern cultivated Iraqi, Moroccan, and Egyptian varieties, 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.
If funds can be found, the researchers hope to apply any novel properties to modern medicines.
"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.