An ancient tree was brought to life from seeds that were kept for over 2,000 years. Botanical researcher Elaine Solowey was curious to see whether the seeds would grow into something and an amazing thing happened.
The date palm was valued as the tree and 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 destroyed 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.
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 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.
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 today, the living archaeological treasure continues to grow and thrive. Researchers have now turned her attention to whether the ancient tree had any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today’s palm varieties.
“Dates were famous in antiquity for medicinal value,” said Solowey. “They were widely used for different kinds of diseases—cancers, TB [tuberculosis]—all kinds of problems.”
Solowey has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life as part of a 10-year project to study plants and herbs used as ancient cures. She has grown plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures to see whether their effectiveness can be scientifically proved. In experiments praised by the Dalai Lama, for example, Borick Center Director Sarah Sallon has shown that ancient Tibetan cures for cardiovascular disease really do work.
The Methuselah plant may be crossbred with its closest living relative, the Hiyani date from Egypt, to generate fruit by 2022.