[NAFEX] After 2,000 Years, a Seed From Ancient Judea Sprouts
machelp at attglobal.net
Mon Jun 13 04:54:18 EDT 2005
After 2,000 Years, a Seed
>From Ancient Judea
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: June 12, 2005
JERUSALEM, June 11 - Israeli doctors and scientists have
succeeded in germinating a date seed nearly 2,000 years old.
The seed, nicknamed Methuselah, was taken from an excavation
at Masada, the cliff fortress where, in A.D. 73, 960 Jewish
zealots died by their own hand, rather than surrender to a
Roman assault. The point is to find out what was so exceptional
about the original date palm of Judea, much praised in the Bible
and the Koran for its shade, food, beauty and medicinal qualities,
but long ago destroyed by the crusaders.
"The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree," says Psalm 92.
"They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. They shall be fat
Well, we'll see. Dr. Sarah Sallon, who runs a project on
medicinal plants of the Middle East, notes that the date palm in
ancient times symbolized the tree of life. But Dr. Elaine Solowey,
who germinated the seed and is growing it in quarantine, says
plants grown from ancient seeds "usually keel over and die
soon," having used most of their nutrients in remaining alive.
The plant is now 11.8 inches tall and has produced seven leaves,
one of which was removed for DNA testing. Radiocarbon dating
in Switzerland on a snip of the seed showed it to be 1,990 years
old, plus or minus 50 years. So the date seed dates from 35 B.C.
to A.D. 65, just before the famed Roman siege.
Three date seeds were taken from Level 34 of the Masada dig.
They were found in a storeroom, and are presumably from dates
eaten by the defenders, Dr. Sallon says.
Mordechai Kislef, director of botanical archeology at Bar-Ilan
University, had some date seeds from Ehud Netzer, who
excavated Masada in the 1970's. "They were sitting in a drawer,
and when I asked for one, he said, 'You're mad,' but finally gave me
three," Dr. Sallon said. "Then I gave them to Elaine, who's an
expert on arid agriculture and dates." Dr. Solowey said: "Well, I
didn't have much hope that any would come up, but you know how
Dr. Sallon, who is a pediatric gastroenterologist trained at
University College, London, came to Israel 20 years ago. She is
the director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research
Center at Hadassah Medical Organization, which she set up 10
years ago to study natural products and therapies, from Tibetan
and Chinese medicine to the indigenous medicinal plants of the
Middle East. The idea is to preserve these plants and their oral
histories in a modernizing region, but also to domesticate them,
evaluate them scientifically and then try to integrate them into
Dr. Solowey, who teaches agriculture and sustainable farming
at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based at
Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Negev, works on finding new
crops for arid and saline areas like Jordan, Gaza and Morocco.
She also works with Dr. Sallon to domesticate indigenous
plants that appear to have medicinal uses.
Dr. Solowey grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California and
studied horticulture, then turned away from commercial
agriculture in disgust, coming here in 1971. "I don't come to
organic agriculture from the hippie side, but as a frustrated
agricultural scientist," she said.
"We've bred for yield and taste, but not hardiness, so we have a
lot of plants as hardy as French poodles, so we have to spray
to protect them, and then we pay the price," she said. "There isn't
a cubic centimeter of water in the San Joaquin Valley that isn't
polluted with something."
She planted the date seeds at the end of January after trying to
draw them out of their deep dormancy. She first soaked the
seeds in hot water to soften the coat, then in an acid rich in
hormones, then in an enzymatic fertilizer made of seaweed and
"I've done other recalcitrant seeds," she said. "It wasn't a
project with a high priority. I had no idea if the food in the seed
was still good, but I put them in new pots in new potting soil and
plugged them into drip irrigation and kind of forgot about them."
About six weeks later, she said, "I saw the earth cracked in a pot
and much to my astonishment, one of these came up."
The first two leaves looked odd, she said, very flat and pale.
"But the third looked like a date leaf with lines, and every one
since has looked more and more normal - like it had a hard time
getting out of the seed."
Lotus seeds of about 1,200 years of age have been sprouted in
China, and after the Nazis bombed London's Natural History
Museum in World War II and a lot of water was used to put out
the fire, seeds of 500 years of age also germinated.
"But no one had done it from 2,000 years old," Dr. Sallon said.
In the time of Pliny, forests of date palms covered the area from
Lake Galilee to the Dead Sea and made Jericho famous; a date
palm features on ancient coinage, as it does on the current
Israeli 10-shekel coin.
The date palm symbolized ancient Israel; the honey of "the land
of milk and honey" came from the date. It is praised as a tonic to
increase longevity, as a laxative, as a cure for infections and as
an aphrodisiac, Dr. Sallon said. But the dates of Judea were
destroyed before the Middle Ages, and what dates Israel grows
now were imported in the 1950's and 60's from California and
originated elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Prophet Muhammad considered the date of great importance
for medicine, food, construction and income, and it is described
in the Koran as a "symbol of goodness" associated with heaven.
Dates need to grow 30 years to reach maturity and can live as
long as 200 years.
But it is the female date that is considered holy, and that bears
fruit. "Men are rather superfluous in the date industry," Dr.
"O.K, I have a date plant," Dr. Solowey said. "If it lives, it will be
years before we eat any dates. And that's if it's female. There's a
50-50 chance. And if it's a male, it will just be a curiosity."
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