Germination of 2000-year-old seeds
In the 1970s, during excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada in Israel, two thousand year old Judean date palm seeds were recovered. The cache of seeds was found contained in an ancient jar, and had experienced a very dry, sheltered environment, which helped to preserve the seeds. Radiocarbon dating at theUniversity of Zurich confirmed the age of the seeds at 2000 ±50 years. After their discovery the seeds were held in storage for thirty years at Bar-Ilan University.
On 25 January 2005, the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat (Arbor Day), Dr. Elaine Solowey, a specialist in rare and medicinal plants at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies pretreated several of the seeds in a fertilizer and hormone-rich solution. She then planted three of the seeds at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arabah desert of southern Israel. One of the seeds sprouted six weeks later. As of June 2008, the tree has nearly a dozen fronds, and is nearly 1.4 m (4 ft) tall.
The plant has been nicknamed "Methuselah," after the longest-lived person in the Bible. Methuselah is remarkable in being the oldest known tree seed successfully germinated, and also in being the only living representative of the Judean date palm, a tree extinct for over 1800 years, which was once a major food and export crop in ancient Judea.
Date palm trees are dioecious. If Methuselah is female, it may produce fruit by 2010. Methuselah's seeds could then be used to cultivate additional Date palm trees.
When compared with three other cultivars of date palm, genetic tests showed the plant to be most closely related to the old Egyptian variety Hayany (also Hiani, Hayani), 13% of its DNA being different. They may have shared the same wild ancestor.
In addition to its honoured place in Judean history, the palm may contribute useful characteristics such as environmental tolerance and disease resistance, to modern date cultivars.
Dr. Sarah Sallon, the head of the project, wants to see if the ancient tree has any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today's date palm varieties. “The Judean date was used for all kinds of things from fertility, to aphrodisiacs, against infections, against tumors,” she said. “This is all part of the folk story.”