Extinct date palm sprouts after 2,000 years

Seed of extinct date palm sprouts after 2,000 years

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Published 4:00 am, Sunday, June 12, 2005
  • Kibbutz Katura, Israel: June 9, 2005: The date tree (center) that was succesfully germenated from a 2000 year old seed found on the ancient Jewish Archeological site of Masada. Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The
    Kibbutz Katura, Israel: June 9, 2005: The date tree (center) that was succesfully germenated from a 2000 year old seed found on the ancient Jewish Archeological site of Masada. Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The

 

2005-06-12 04:00:00 PDT Kibbutz Ketura, Israel — It has five leaves, stands 14 inches high and is nicknamed Methuselah. It looks like an ordinary date palm seedling, but for UCLA- educated botanist Elaine Solowey, it is a piece of history brought back to life.

Planted on Jan. 25, the seedling growing in the black pot in Solowey’s nursery on this kibbutz in Israel’s Arava desert is 2,000 years old — more than twice as old as the 900-year-old biblical character who lent his name to the young tree. It is the oldest seed ever known to produce a viable young tree.

The seed that produced Methuselah was discovered during archaeological excavations at King Herod‘s palace on Mount Masada, near the Dead Sea. Its age has been confirmed by carbon dating. Scientists hope that the unique seedling will eventually yield vital clues to the medicinal properties of the fruit of the Judean date tree, which was long thought to be extinct.

Solowey, originally from San Joaquin (Fresno County), teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, where she 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.

In collaboration with the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Center at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, named in honor of its Southern California- based benefactor, Solowey grows 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 San Francisco Chronicle was granted the first viewing of the historic seedling, which sprouted about four weeks after planting. It has grown six leaves, but one has been removed for DNA testing so scientists can learn more about its relationship to its modern-day cousins.

The Judean date 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.

For Christians, the palm is a symbol of peace associated with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The ancient Hebrews called the date palm the “tree of life” because of the protein in its fruit and the shade given by its long leafy branches. The Arabs said there were as many uses for the date palm as there were days in the year.

Greek architects modeled their Ionic columns on the tree’s tall, thin trunk and curling, bushy top. The Romans called it Phoenix dactylifera — “the date-bearing phoenix” — because it never died and appeared to be reborn in the desert where all other plant life perished.

Now Solowey and her colleagues have brought this phoenix of the desert back to life after 2,000 years.

The ancient seeds were found 30 years ago during archeological excavations on Mount Masada, the mountaintop fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea where King Herod built a spectacular palace. When the Romans conquered Palestine and laid waste to the Temple in Jerusalem, 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.

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds, which were identified by the department of botanical archaeology at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. Then they were placed in storage, where they lay for 30 years until Sallon heard about the cache.

“When we asked if we could try and grow some of them, they said, ‘You’re mad,’ but they gave us three seeds,” she said.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Seed-of-extinct-date-palm-sprouts-after-2-000-2628668.php#ixzz2KrQSUEBx

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