Date palm gets new life after 2,000 years

Sapling grown from seed found by archaeologists

March 23, 2007|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,Chicgo Tribune

JERUSALEM -- In quarantine under protective netting, a palm sapling coaxed from a seed that's nearly 2,000 years old is growing in southern Israel.

Researchers nurturing the plant, nicknamed Methuselah after the biblical figure said to have lived 969 years, are worried about the seedling's exposure to modern pests.

"Things have changed in 2,000 years, and we have this plant that is frozen in time, like Rip Van Winkle," said Elaine Solowey, a horticulturist from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev region.

"We have date trees across the road with modern diseases," Solowey said. "There's only one tree like this, and I feel very responsible for it."

The fledgling date palm was grown from a seed found by archaeologists at the desert fortress of Masada, where Jewish rebels took their own lives in A.D. 73 rather than submit to Roman forces that captured the stronghold after a long siege. Carbon dating has shown the seed to be from around the 1st century.

If the plant is female and continues to grow normally, researchers say, it could produce fruit in three to four years, replicating the ancient date of Judea, a valued export also known for its medicinal properties.

"Our ancestors were eating these kinds of dates," Solowey said. "That's kind of a thrill, to put yourself in the shoes of ancient people and know how they made their living and what they were eating."

The idea of germinating the ancient seed was conceived by Dr. Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. The center focuses on the study of natural therapies such as Tibetan and Chinese medicine as well as medicinal plants indigenous to the Middle East.

Researchers study local species for their remedial properties and collect information on their traditional use. They also work to preserve such plants and reintroduce those that have become extinct in Israel.

The Judean date once grew in vast plantations stretching from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, according to historical accounts, and Jewish and Arab sources say the date is a tonic and a remedy for a variety of ailments ranging from hemorrhoids to cancer, Sallon said.

According to Jewish tradition, the date is one of the seven species with which the biblical Land of Israel is blessed. After crushing the Jewish revolt in the 1st century, the Romans struck a coin showing a woman representing Judea sitting in mourning beneath a palm tree, and the tree also appears on the modern Israeli 10-shekel coin.

But the Judean date palm was destroyed by the time of the Crusades, and the palms growing in modern Israel were imported from California, belonging to species originating elsewhere in the Middle East.

In her quest for medicinal plants now extinct in Israel, Sallon asked Mordechai Kislev, an archeobotanist at Bar-Ilan University, for some ancient seeds he had received in the 1970s from Yigael Yadin, the prominent Israeli archaeologist who excavated Masada.

"He asked what we wanted to do with them, and when I said we wanted to grow them, he said, `You're mad,'" Sallon said, adding that after "a lot of persuasion," five seeds were handed over.

Three of the seeds were planted by Solowey, a specialist in sustainable agriculture who works with Sallon on domesticating indigenous medicinal plants.

Using enzymatic fertilizers and hormones used to promote seed germination and rooting, Solowey planted the seeds in sterile soil Jan. 25, 2005, which that year corresponded to the Jewish New Year for trees.

"I didn't have too much hope," she said.

But March 3 the soil in one pot cracked, and a shoot later appeared.

"I couldn't believe it," Solowey said.

The first leaves were discolored and white, but those that grew later were a normal green. Today the seedling is about 3 feet high, with a short inner shoot and delicate fronds.

After the seed germinated, Sallon sent the two unplanted seeds to the University of Zurich in Switzerland for carbon dating, which showed that they were from around the 1st century. A leaf of the plant was sent for DNA analysis to determine how it differed from modern varieties.

The date seed is one of the oldest seeds to be germinated anywhere and is believed to be the oldest dormant tree seed brought to life.

In 1967, botanists in Canada germinated seeds of arctic lupine that were found in the Yukon in rodent burrows whose contents were estimated to be 10,000 years old.

A lotus seed found in a dry lake bed in China and shown by carbon dating to be nearly 1,300 years old was germinated in 1995 by a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

During World War II, centuries-old seeds kept at the Natural History Museum in London germinated after a German bombardment caused a fire and large quantities of water were used to douse the flames.

Solowey said prospects for re-creating the ancient Judean date remain precarious, even if the palm she is growing turns out to be a female with the potential of flowering and bearing fruit.

"One never knows with a plant of this type if something can make it flower late, and some plants never flower at all," she said. "There are a lot of things that can get damaged. Complex organisms are so fragile.

"With luck, in three years maybe we'll get some flowers, and perhaps we'll know something about the past."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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