Ancient Date Palm and Arctic Flower Brought Back from the Dead

For the first time in 2,000 years, a Judean date palm tree bears fruit, and seeds buried by a 32,000-year-old squirrel bear flowers.
Marcia Wendorf
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Both the Bible and the Quran are full of mentions of the Judean date palm, which was praised for the beauty of its tree and the taste of its fruit.

Judea Capta sestertius of Vespasian
Judea Capta sestertius of Vespasian. Source: CNG/Wikimedia Commons

Designs on ancient synagogue walls featured the Judean date palm tree. In 71 AD, Rome struck a coin, the Judea Capta sestertius of Vespasian, to commemorate its victory over the Jewish Revolt. The reverse of the coin features a woman weeping under a Judean date palm tree and the words "IVDAEA CAPTA", which means "Judaea conquered". The Judean date palm also featured on another Roman coin, the Aureus of Vespasian, "IUDAEA DEVICTA", "Judaea defeated".

Aureus of Vespasian
Aureus of Vespasian Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lost to history

By the Middle Ages, the Judean date palm had vanished entirely, likely the victim of various wars and upheaval in the region. Then, during the 1960 excavations at the famous fortress next to the Dead Sea, Masada, archaeologists discovered date palm seeds.


Fast forward to the early 2000s. That's when Dr. Sarah Sallon, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Israel's Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem went poking into an ancient archive looking for information on natural medicine. 

Within those dusty pages, Dr. Sallon read that the biblical-age inhabitants used Judean dates to treat indigestion, to improve blood production, to increase memory, and even as an aphrodisiac.

Dr. Sallon retrieved a few Judean palm seeds from the Masada expedition, and in January 2005, she delivered them to Israel's Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located at Kibbutz Ketura.

There, Elaine Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture, planted the seeds in pots, coaxed them along with plant hormones and an enzymatic fertilizer, and sat back. Within weeks, one tiny shoot emerged, and Ms. Solowey named it Methuselah after the biblical and Islamic patriarch who reached the advanced age of 969.

Methuselah. Source: DASonnenfeld/Wikimedia Commons

Once Methuselah grew into a tree, Ms. Solowey used genetic testing to determine that the plant was indeed a male, and thus would not produce fruit.

Methuselah was in danger of being the only one of his kind until Ms. Solowey called on Dr. Sallon, who went searching for more Judean palm seeds.

Incredibly, at the same site in the Judean desert where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found, Qumran, around 30 Judean palm seeds had also been found. Dr. Sallon quickly got them to Ms. Solowey, who planted them between the years 2011 and 2014.

A match showing that age doesn't matter

Six of the new seeds sprouted, and they too were given biblical names — Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah. Hannah was especially amazing since her seed was carbon-dated to between the first and the fourth centuries BCE, making her one of the oldest seeds ever to have been germinated.

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Hannah grew for six years, then flowered. Ms. Solowey chose Methuselah to be the father, and she moved pollen from him onto Hannah's flowers. After a wait of over 2,000 years, the Judean date was about to be reborn.

Recently, Hannah's fruit was harvested for the first time, and the Judean date has turned out to have a light brown skin, which is a lighter shade than that of the common Moroccan Medjool date. The Judean date's honey-colored flesh is more fibrous and chewy than the Medjool, and much less sweet.

Genetic testing done by France's University of Montpellier determined that the Judean date is similar to the Iraqi Zahidi date, which is known for its nutty flavor, and to other varieties of dates that grew in ancient Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Pakistan. This perfectly reflects the history of the region which served as a crossroads between the East and the West.

Thank you, squirrel

In 2007, a team of scientists from Russia, Hungary, and the U.S. discovered a cache of seeds buried 124 feet (38 meters) beneath the permafrost of northeastern Siberia. Most likely, they had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel, and testing revealed the seeds to be those of the flowering plant Silene stenophylla, a version of which still exists today and grows in far eastern Siberia and the mountains of Northern Japan

Amazingly, the seeds found by the scientists dated to 32,000 years ago, and the layer where the seeds were found included the bones of the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros

Silene stenophylla
Silene stenophylla. Source: shams bahari/Wikimedia Commons

In February 2012, Russian scientists from the Institute of Cell Biophysics of the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that they had successfully regenerated Silene stenophylla for the first time in 32,000 years.

Initially, the regenerated plants looked the same as their modern counterparts, but when they flowered, the scientists noticed that the petals of the ancient plants were longer and more widely spaced than those of the modern version.

Even more interesting was the fact that the ancient plant was more fertile than its modern cousin, with its seeds germinating at a rate of 100% while those of the modern plant only germinated at a rate of 90%.

Ms. Solowey said, "Certainly some of the plants that were cultivated in ancient times and have gone extinct or other plants once important to ecosystems which have disappeared would be very useful today if they could be brought back."

The ability to germinate frozen seeds bodes well for humanity since most of the world's seeds are frozen and stored at Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is also known as "the doomsday vault." Let's hope we all can enjoy a Judean date sometime in the near future.