The Judean date seed was found, together with a large number of other seeds, during archaeological excavations carried out close to Massada near the southern end of the Dead Sea. Massada was the last Jewish stronghold following the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple over 1,930 years ago. The age of the seeds was determined using carbon dating, but has a margin of error of 50 years – placing them either right before or right after the Massada revolt.
The seeds sat in storage for thirty years until Elain Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies was asked to attempt to cultivate three of them. Solowey spoke with Israel National Radio's Yishai Fleisher and Alex Traiman about reviving the ancient date palm.
Solowey, who raised the plant, has grown over 100 rare and almost extinct species of plants. Together with Hadassah Hospital’s Natural Medicine Center, she seeks to use the plants listed in ancient remedies to seek effective uses for modern medical conditions. The Judean date has been credited with helping fight cancer, malaria and toothaches. Solowey was skeptical about the chances of success at first, but gave it a try. “I treated it in warm water and used growth hormones and an enzymatic fertilizer extracted from seaweed in order to supplement the food normally present in a seed,” she said.
As this year’s Tu B’Shvat (the Jewish new year for trees, the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat) approaches, the young tree that sprouted from one of the three seeds now has five leaves (one was removed for scientific testing) and is 14 inches tall. Solowey has named it Metushelah (Methuselah), after the 969-year-old grandfather of Noah, the oldest human being ever.
Solowey said that although the plant’s leaves were pale at first, the young tree now looks “perfectly normal.”
The Judean palms once grew throughout the Jordan Valley, from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) to the Dead Sea. Those from Jericho, at the northern end of the Dead Sea, were of particularly notable quality. Though dates are still grown widely in the Jordan Valley, the trees come mostly from California.
The Judean date palm trees are referred to in Psalm 92 (“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree…”). The tree was also depicted on the ancient Jewish shekel and now appears on the modern Israeli 10-shekel coin.
It is too early to tell, but if the tree is female, it is supposed to bear fruit by 2010, after which it can be propagated to revive the Judean date palm species altogether. “It is a long road to our being able to eat the Judean date once again,” Solowey said, “but there is the possibility of restoring the date to the modern world.”
Listen to the interview on Israel National Radio