Photo Credit: Guy Eisner
Germinated ancient date seedlings. Ages in months at time of photograph (A to C) Adam (110 months), Jonah (63 months), and Uriel (54 months). (D to F) Boaz (54 months), Judith (47 months), and Hannah (88 months).

Just in time for the holiday of Tu B’Shevat — the Jewish holiday marking the start of the New Year of Trees, celebrated in the Land of Israel — a team of scientists from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and France has succeeded in germinating and growing six date palm trees from a batch of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds.

Morphology of six germinated ancient date seeds before planting.
(A) Adam, (B) Jonah, (C) Uriel, (D) Boaz, (E) Judith, (F) Hannah, and (G) HU37A11, an unplanted ancient date seed from Qumran (Cave FQ37) used as a control. Scale bars, 0.5 cm (A, no bar size as unmeasured before planting).

An unplanted ancient date seed from Qumran was used as a control in the study.

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The researchers, who published their study last week online in the Journal of Science Advances, entitled the article, Origins and insights into the historic Judean date palm based on genetic analysis of germinated ancient seeds and morphometric studies.

The six seeds that were successfully germinated were the only ones that turned out viable among the 34 chosen for the attempt out of hundreds of seeds of Phoenix dactylifera collected between 1963 and 1991 from archaeological excavation sites in southern Israel, including Qumran, Masada, Wadi Makukh and Wadi Kelt. The sites were located in the Judea Desert between the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea.

The team, led by Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, also included Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies (AIES) at Kibbutz Ketura.

It was at Ketura that in 2005, the first 2,000-year-old date palm seed from Masada was germinated successfully and grew to be a tall, beautiful male Judean date palm named “Methuselah.”

Of the hundreds of ancient date seeds and other botanical material recovered from excavations carried out in the Judean desert between 1963 and 1991, 32 well-preserved date seeds from the archaeological sites of Masada, Qumran, Wadi Makukh, and Wadi Kelt were planted in a quarantine site at Kibbutz Ketura. Of these, six ancient seeds germinated and were further identified by the following monikers: Masada: “Adam”; Qumran: “Jonah,” “Uriel,” “Boaz,” and “Judith”; and Wadi Makukh: “Hannah,” the researchers wrote.

The six seeds have now grown into lovely young saplings, which researchers said are described in antiquity for the quality, size and medicinal properties of the fruit, but lost for centuries. Ancient seeds were significantly longer and wider than modern varieties, according to the researchers, supporting historical records of the large size of the Judean date.

According to the researchers, “These findings, in accord with the region’s location between east and west date palm gene pools, suggest that sophisticated agricultural practices may have contributed to the Judean date’s historical reputation.”

Methuselah, by the way, is now well over ten feet tall, and five years ago pollinated a wild modern female date palm, according to an article in National Geographic.

Genetic tests indicated that Methuselah is most closely related to an ancient variety of date palm from Egypt known as Hayany, National Geographic reported.

If all goes well with the new saplings — of which two are females — it is hoped Methuselah will be able to pollinate “Hannah” and “Judith” as well, and then perhaps the dates that will be produced will provide researchers with a glimmer of what ancient palates enjoyed in Israel.

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