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Date Palm Sprouts After 2,000 Years

October 3, 2005
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Sarah Sallon, of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, said she and her colleagues used seeds found in archaeological excavations at Masada, the desert mountain fortress where ancient Jewish rebels chose suicide over capture by Roman legions in AD 73. She said they were the oldest seeds ever brought back to life.

“A lotus seed was germinated [in China] after 1,200 years, but nothing has been germinated coming from this far back—not to 2,000 years,” Sallon said.

Carbon dating of a fragment from the Masada seeds put their age at between 1,940 and 2,040 years.

The palm plant, nicknamed Methuselah after the biblical figure who lived for 969 years (Gen. 5:27), is now about a foot (30 centimeters) tall. Sallon and her colleagues have sent one of its leaves for DNA analysis, in the hope that it will reveal medicinal qualities that have disappeared from modern cultivated varieties.

The date palms now grown in Israel were imported from California and are of a strain originating in Iraq, Sallon said. The Judean date, prized in antiquity but extinct until Methuselah’s awakening, might have had very different properties from the modern variant.

Sallon said the project is more than a curiosity. She and her colleagues hope it will hold promise for the future, like the antimalarial treatment artemisinin, developed out of a traditional Chinese plant treatment, and a cancer medicine made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.

“Dates were highly medicinal,” Sallon said. “They had an enormous amount of use in ancient times for infections, for tumors…We think that ancient medicines of the past can be the medicines of the future.”

“If the plant survives, it will take some 30 years to bear fruit, provided it turns out to be female,” Sallon said. “The genetics of this plant will be very interesting, whatever sex it is. It’s the females that produce the fruit…but the males are very valuable as well.”


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