Resurrecting the Judean Date Palm Using Ancient Dead Sea Seeds

Published on February 20th 2020
The story is almost biblical; a comeback like Lazarus.
After years in limbo and facing eternity in an archaeological archive, Adam, Boaz, Jonah, Judith, Hannah, and Uriel are free to live as nature, or perhaps even god, intended.
So who or what are Adam et al? Well, the sextet are now a thriving group of Judean date palms in Israel.
The extraordinary thing, besides the fact that the Judean date palm once disappeared off the face of the earth, is that these six trees sprung from 2,000-year-old seeds plucked from historical sites in the region.
Some of the seeds are from Masada, the scene of a Roman siege and from where King Herod ruled Judea out of an elaborate hilltop fortress.
Others come from Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in 1947. Meanwhile, Hannah was found at a site at Wadi Makukh, near Jericho.
How the seeds came to thrive in a modern-day kibbutz in 2020 has now been revealed in a recently released study led by Dr. Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel.

Judean dates

A large pile of meat
A much sought after commodity in the ancient world, the fruit from the Judean date palm was considered to have significant medicinal, economic, and symbolic value in the southern Levant.
At one time a staple food of the Judean Desert, the fruit was heralded for its quality. The multi-use tree adorned shrines and even featured on coins.
A plantation tree plentiful in what would be modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, the palm survived into the Byzantine and Arab periods of conquest.
But according to the new study, by the 19th century and perhaps earlier no traces of the historic plantations remained.
Pliny the Elder, a 1st Century AD Roman naturalist, once said of the Judean dates: "Indeed, when in a fresh state, they are so remarkably luscious that there would be no end of eating them...”
Due to hybridization we now have multiple date varieties. But the same exquisite taste from the ancient Judean fruit once raved about by the Romans has been lost. So could we ever feast on the delicacy again?

Seeds from King Herod’s time

Inspired by studies of the same vein - such as the work by plant physiologist Jane Shen-Miller, who grew 1,288-year-old dormant lotus seed in the 1980s - Dr. Sallon and a team of researchers successfully germinated six seeds from around the time of Jesus Christ and King Herod.
But it’s not the first time they’ve done this. Dr. Sallon and her colleague Dr. Elaine Solowey, of the Arava Institute of the Environment, had a big result in 2005 when they managed to germinate their first ancient seed.
Aptly nicknamed Methuselah, after the oldest figure in the Bible, the date palm seed was discovered beneath a pile of rubble alongside other botanical material near the Herodian Northern Palace in Masada. The full study can be read here.
“We were surprised when Methuselah came up. We were so not expecting it to happen, we didn’t even weigh or measure those early seeds,” Dr. Sallon told Candide Gardening.
“In this case, we were much more careful. We carefully photographed the seeds, weighed them and measured them because we thought if another comes up it may not be a fluke, it might happen again.”
The latest ancient date palm seeds were part of a collection carefully chosen from archaeological archives by Dr. Sallon.
Hannah and Adam are the oldest, dating back to the first and fourth centuries BCE, while the youngest Uriel and Jonah are from the first to second centuries CE. The ancient seeds were all “significantly larger” than modern equivalents.
Dr. Sallon explained how she was given permission to use seeds from archives of archaeological material taken from Masada, excavated in the 1960s, Wadi Makukh and Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered.
“I picked out what I thought were the best seeds. They were in really nice condition. They didn’t have holes. They weren’t all eaten away by insects. They weren’t crumbling. They were about as perfect as I could get.”
She gave a selection of the seeds to her colleague Dr. Elaine Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture, who then set about trying to germinate the ancient seeds. And things started to happen.

Planting ancient seeds

Some 32 date palm seeds were planted at a quarantined kibbutz in the Arava Institute of Environmental Sciences, southern Israel.
The study describes how each seed was potted separately 1cm below sterile potting soil. Out of the 32, the six seeds germinated.
Eight weeks after germination and periodically afterward, KF-20, which boosts microorganisms in the soil, and iron chelate were added to the seedlings.
“Irrigation used desalinated water, as our previous study on germinating the first ancient date seed indicated that using the region’s highly mineralized water produced ‘tip burn’,” the study explained.
What’s especially interesting, aside from the fact these seeds germinated at all, is that the conditions of the Dead Sea could have contributed to the seeds remaining viable.
The climatic conditions are something that cannot be ruled out.
“Date palms grow in dry areas, so their seeds have to be resistant to drying out. The Dead Sea is at a very low altitude - it’s the lowest place on earth,” Dr. Sallon said.
“The conditions of the Dead Sea are unusual. First of all, it’s very, very hot and dry. There’s no moisture for seeds to decompose. Second of all, date seeds are known to be very resistant to dehydration. They have developed this over thousands of years.”
The six date palms could help further research into ancient cultivation.
However, Dr. Sallon cautions that we might not be able to taste the fruit of ancient civilisations just yet since when you grow from seed, what you are growing is a hybrid.
“When people plant date plantations, they don’t grow these dates from seeds,” Dr. Sallon said.
“They grow them from the offshoots of female date palms that are very high producers; female date palms that are the ‘Big Mommas’ of producing wonderful dates.
“That offshoot is an exact clone of the mother. All those females will produce the same type of date. But they’re not grown from seeds because when you grow a seed it has bits of the mother and the father; every date is different.
“So [the six trees] will produce dates but they won’t produce those ace dates until you do what the ancient people did.”

"Hope and regeneration"

The ancient trees' fruit may also be used to explore whether modern dates are missing any qualities that were present 2,000 years ago. There is now room to explore whether these trees hold any genetic qualities that may have been bred out of modern date palms.
“We could compare our ancient dates with modern ones and see if there is a difference. Is it possible that these modern date palms can be resistant to infections?” Dr Sallon said.
She added: “Perhaps these ancient date palms can be a symbol of hope. I think they can be a symbol of regeneration in this time of climatic and environmental destruction. [Trees] that had been considered wiped out by human beings have come back."

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