Israeli researchers grow new date plants from 2,000-year-old seeds

Six saplings sprout from ancient kernels gathered at Judean archaeological sites; scientists hope to pollinate female plants and produce fruit

Illustrative photo of date trees near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, on September 10, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of date trees near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, on September 10, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Israeli researchers revealed Wednesday that they successfully grew extinct date plants from ancient seeds found at archaeological sites in the Judean Desert.

Dozens of seeds were gleaned from archaeology collections gathered at locations in the dry Dead Sea area, including the Masada hilltop fortress built by King Herod the Great in the first century BCE and the ancient site of Qumran, famous for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s.

Six saplings grew from 32 seeds sown and the plants have been dubbed Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah.

“Germination of 2000-year-old seeds of Phoenix dactylifera from Judean desert archaeological sites provides a unique opportunity to study the Judean date palm, described in antiquity for the quality, size, and medicinal properties of its fruit, but lost for centuries,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the peer-reviewed Science Advances journal.

“The Kingdom of Judah (Judea) that arose in the southern part of the historic Land of Israel in the 11th century BCE was particularly renowned for the quality and quantity of its dates,” the researchers noted. “These so-called ‘Judean dates’ grown in plantations around Jericho and the Dead Sea were recognized by classical writers for their large size, sweet taste, extended storage, and medicinal properties.”

A view of the excavations at Masada (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A view of the excavations at Masada (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Radiocarbon dating revealed the seeds used for the project came from a period spanning the fourth century BCE to the second century CE.

Further analysis found the seeds had a genetic makeup from various locations spreading eastward across the region stretching into modern day Iraq.

Date palm cultivation in southern Mesopotamia began over 6,000 years ago and exiles returning after the collapse of Babylonian empire in 539 BCE “may have brought this specialized knowledge and selected cultivars back to Judea,” the researchers speculated.

“A date variety ‘Taali’ cultivated in both Judea and Babylon is mentioned in the Talmud,” they wrote.

Screen capture from video of Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem. (YouTube)

The dry conditions in the Dead Sea region could have helped the seeds survive two millennia without losing their ability to grow.

“Low precipitation and very low humidity around the Dead Sea could have contributed to the longevity of the ancient date seeds,” the researchers said.

Dr Elaine Solowey, Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute in southern Israel, who in 2008 successfully germinated a 1,900-year-old date palm seed that took the name Methuselah after the long-lived Biblical character, told the Times of Israel that while Methusela germinated in just six weeks, this latest batch of seeds took up to nine months.

“You have to hydrate them very gently,” she said. “If you just dump them in water, you’ll probably kill them, if they’re alive. I used an old baby bottle warmer to help rehydrate them.” After adding gibberellic acid — a hormone found in plants — and a seaweed based fertilizer to encourage root growth, she planted them in sterile soil, locked them up in the greenhouse, and “just hoped. I only had one chance with each seed.”

She named the first one to germinate Eve, but had to change that to Adam after genetic tests revealed the seedling to be a male. Adam, now 1.5 meters high (1.6 yards), and Jonah have already produced flowers. Judith, and Hannah are the great hopes for supplying dates. They will be fertilized by Methusela.

Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, told the UK Guardian newspaper of the painstaking methods involved in selecting and growing the seeds.

“I spent hours and hours in the archaeology department picking through the best seeds,” Sallon recalled. “A lot of them had holes in where insects had bored through or [they had] fallen apart, but some were really pristine and I picked the very best ones.”

Visitors at the Qumran archaeological site, January 22, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“It won’t be the typical Judean date, because dates that were grown at that time – just like dates that are grown today – are not grown from seeds that somebody puts in the earth,” Sallon said. “They are grown from clones from very high-producing females.”

“Dates were an enormous export from Judea and they were famous,” Sallon noted. “Herod even used to present them to the emperor in Rome every year.”

Methusela, Adam, Jonah and Hanna have been planted out at Kibbutz Ketura and can be viewed. The others are still in the greenhouse.

“Methusela has grown into a big boy,” said Solowey. “He’s around 3.5 meters (3.8 yards) high and very stout. He doesn’t look like the kind of date we know today.”

Israel’s popular Medjool and Deglet Nour dates were brought to Israel from Iraq and Morocco by Jews in the early part of the last century. The only cultivated dates already present were limited plantations of sire dates planted by the Ottoman Turks.

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