Featured Creature: Judean Date Palm

Photo by Elaine Solowey via Timeline

What miraculous plant, revered by ancient Israelites and once thought to be extinct, sprouted from 2,000 year old seeds in 2005? 

The Judean Date Palm! 

Methuselah, the first Judean Date Palm sprouted from ancient seeds
Photo by Elaine Solowey via Timeline

For as long as I can remember, I have been enthralled by ancient history and cultures. Even as early as elementary school, I would sit on the floor of my local public library (conveniently situated in a century-old building) and pore over piles of books that revealed the secrets and stories of times gone by. For a long time, I couldn’t fully comprehend the information I was reading and the vocabulary was often way over my head, but I was so easily immersed in the pieces of those stories that I could understand. 

This same feeling washes over me when I am with nature. For example, standing in a forest, I am confounded by the experience of being immersed in something vibrating with the energy of ancient knowledge, yet at the same time standing right in the present moment. It never ceases to amaze me. Needless to say, when I learned about the story of how a 2,000 year old plant species from ancient Judea was revived in 2005 and recently began reproducing, I knew I had to dive deeper and share this story with you, our lovely readers. 

A Fruit That Stood The Test of Time

The Judean Date Palm was an iconic figure in ancient Judea. It was revered by people for its sweet fruits and medicinal properties – so much so that illustrations of the plant were even engraved onto local currency. The plant also makes an appearance in religious texts, like the Bible and the Quran, and some synagogues have the Judean Date Palm adorning their walls. At one point, the dates were grown on expansive plantations, which ceased to exist after some time  due to ongoing conflict in the region. However, one particular seed bank managed to preserve the Judean Date Palm species for nearly 2,000 years. 

A Unique Form of Seed Saving

During the First Jewish–Roman War around AD 72, a Roman general named Flavius Silva and his 8,000 troops approached the Jewish fortress of Masada – home to the former King Herod’s palace – in an event that would later come to be known as the Siege of Masada. The Jewish people living within the fortress were strong fighters known as the Sicarii. Due to the highly advantageous location, the siege did not take place quickly, but rather dragged on for months as the Romans made their way up the fortress. As the Romans got closer, the Sicarii realized that there was no way out. They gathered all of their belongings, from currency to food stores, in a warehouse and set the structure ablaze. Fearing slavery to the Romans more than death, the group of nearly 1,000 people then committed mass suicide before the Romans finally breached the fortress. 

Aerial view of Masada, in the Judaean Desert, Israel, with the Dead Sea in the distance
Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

When A Resurrector & A Regenerator Team Up

In the 1960s, a group of archaeologists began excavating the ancient ruins at the site of Masada. They came across goods such as coins, pomegranates, wine, and… Judean Date Palm seeds. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when a pediatric gastroenterologist named Dr. Sarah Sallon appeared and sparked the idea to germinate these seeds. She initially became interested in the Judean Date Palm as a result of her interest in plant medicines, and after learning that it had once been used for digestion, memory enhancement, and blood production, she approached Dr. Elaine Solowey at the Arava Institute about trying to revive the plant from the ancient seeds. Dr. Solowey agreed, and… hallelujah! After much hard work, she successfully sprouted a Judean Date Palm from the 2,000 year old seeds in 2005. Dr. Sallon and Dr. Solowey named the plant Methuselah, after the oldest figure in the bible who lived to be 969 years old. 

A Gift For Centuries to Come

The adventure didn’t end with Methuselah! This miracle of a plant was a male tree, and a female tree was needed to pollinate and reproduce the long-heralded fruits. Dr. Solowey planted 32 more seeds and 6 plants grew from them, one of which was a very special female named Hannah. The two plants fertilized, and Hannah soon produced a harvest of 111 dates in 2020, followed by a harvest of nearly 700 dates in August 2021. 

Dr. Solowey continues to care for the now-world famous plants and Dr. Sallon continues to conduct research on them. More and more information is being learned across the globe about the history of date palms and how the species’ diversity came to be. 

What fascinates me the most about the Judean Date Palm is that it is a strong reminder of the interdependent relationship that humans have with plants. The seeds were found in a region bordering the fertile crescent (known as one of the cradles of civilization), which is also where the first agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago. In response to findings about the geographic travels and evolution of the date palm, Dr. Sallon eloquently told the New York Times, “Putting it simply, what do we find? The story of ancient Israel and the Jewish people, of diasporas, trade routes and commerce throughout the Middle East.” 

Humans began harvesting dates 7,500 years ago and we have not only maintained that relationship but have also welcomed the plant into our stories and journeys across place and time (and it’s been a lot of time!). This story has inspired me to reflect on our dependence on plants and the roots and importance of biodiversity in a new light. Has this story sprouted anything new for you, too?

By Abby Abrahamson