The desolate cliffs of Masada are disturbed by little other than the dry desert winds and a seldom sprinkle of winter rain – the perfect place for a 2,000-year-old seed to wait out the millennia until an Israeli scientist could rescue and resuscitate it.
Methuselah, as the 26-month-old plant has been named (after the oldest human being who ever lived), appears to be healthy, almost 4 feet tall, and growing strong, according to an update reported in the June 13 2008 issue of the journal Science.
Famed archaeologist and former IDF Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin, who led the excavations at Masada, stored the pile of seeds he had found at Bar Ilan University, where they sat for another 40 years.
In 2005, medical plant researcher Dr. Sarah Sallon came along, asked for, and received, five of the seeds. Two were sent for analysis to the University of Zurich for radio-carbon dating, as were the shell fragments that later clung to Methuselah's roots.
The other three seeds were given to Elaine Solowey, a plant specialist at the Arava Institute of the Environment, who soaked them in warm water, fertilizer and hormones. Finally the seeds were planted on the holiday of Tu B'Shevat (Jewish Arbor Day) on January 19, 2005.
Eight weeks later, Methuselah's first green shoot peeked through the soil. It was the only one to survive.
The Radio-Carbon Laboratory estimated that the seeds were approximately 2,000 years old, an analysis that made sense; Masada was built 2,044 years ago and destroyed by the Romans approximately 100 years later..
The seeds were indeed most likely remnants of the fruit stored by the Jews who lived in the fortress, hoping to avoid the invaders who had destroyed Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The young date palm is a sprout of an ancient Judean variety that was believed to be extinct for thousands of years.
The Dead Sea region, where Masada is located, and the Jordan River Valley which extends to the Sea of Galilee, were once a lush forest of such date palms. The large, sweet fruit was famous throughout the civilized world both for its distinctive flavor as well as for its medicinal properties, which are mentioned in the Bible.
Today, however, Israel's date palms are of imported stock.
Researchers say it is still not clear whether the sprout is a male or female – but if it's a "girl", the research team led by Sallon at the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center, part of the Hadassah medical organization, says "she" could bear fruit as early as 2010.