March 26, 2015
Date palm grown from 2000-year-old seed is now a dad
Methuselah, a date palm tree successfully sprouted from a 2,000-year-old seed in 2005, has reached maturation and pollinated another palm, scientists at the laboratory responsible for originally germinating the ancient seed told National Geographic this week.
Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, and her colleagues germinated the seed nearly a decade ago after it was donated to them by the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center of the Hadassah Medical Organization.
The seed, along with several others, was originally discovered during excavations of the ancient fortification of Masada in the 1960s, the Institue explained. Dr. Solowey’s team germinated one of the seeds, which went on to sprout into a young – and now, fully grown – date palm.
There's just too many puns we could use
The tree, which was named Methuselah in honor of the oldest person named in the Bible, was the subject of a 2005 Nat Geo article, and when that story resurfaced online earlier this week, the site decided to check in with Dr. Solowey and the Arava Institute to see how the palm was doing.
“He is a big boy now,” said Dr. Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture and the director of the facility. “He is over three meters tall, he's got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good. We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”
After the seed was discovered during the Masada excavation, it wound up in a researcher’s desk drawer in Tel Aviv for several years, the website said. Experts believed that germinating the seed was “botanically impossible,” the Institute noted, but scientists there were able to successfully do so, and now Methuselah has “a permanent home” at the research facility.
Since Methuselah first sprouted, Dr. Solowey has successfully germinated a handful of other palm seeds recovered from ancient sites in the Dead Sea region. She and her fellow researchers are hoping to breed Methuselah, a male tree, with a similar female in order to produce the same type of date that was prized as both food and medicine in ancient Judea.
“I'm trying to figure out how to plant an ancient date grove,” the doctor said, telling Nat Geo that thus far, at least two of the other ancient seeds that have sprouted are female. If successful, “we would know what kind of dates they ate in those days and what they were like,” she added. “That would be very exciting.”
Genetic tests conducted on the 2,000-year-old date palm indicate that its closest relatives are an ancient type of date palm from Egypt known as Hayany, which would match with a legend that claims that dates came to Israel along with those escaping Egypt as part of the Exodus.
“It is pretty clear that Methuselah is a western date from North Africa rather than from Iraq, Iran, Babylon, [but] you can't confirm a legend, of course,” Dr. Solowey said. She added that her team is hoping to establish an ancient date orchard to study the plants, including to evaluate whether or not they actually do possess any unique medicinal properties.
The doctor also told Nat Geo that the other plants sprouted from ancient seeds are similar in appearance to Methuselah, with a sharp angle between the fronds and spine among their distinguishing features. She added that, over the past decade, “a lot of people have kind of forgotten about Methuselah,” and that it “is actually a really pretty tree.”