Amazingly, botanist Elaine Solowey coaxed a seed of extinct date palm to sprout after 2,000 years.
The seed that was discovered during archaeological excavations at King Herod’s palace on Mount Masada, near the Dead Sea. The Judean date is chronicled in the Bible, Quran and ancient literature for its diverse powers — from an aphrodisiac to a contraceptive — and as a cure for a wide range of diseases including cancer, malaria and toothache. For Christians, the palm is a symbol of peace associated with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The ancient Hebrews called the date palm the “tree of life” because of the protein in its fruit and the shade given by its long leafy branches.
The three seeds were long and thin, grayish-brown in color. Solowey soaked them in warm water, and then added gibberellic acid, a potent growth hormone used to induce germination in reluctant seeds. Next, she added a special rooting hormone for woody plants called T8 and an enzyme-rich fertilizer to supplement the natural food inside it. She then planted it in sterile potting soil on the Jewish festival of trees.
“It’s certainly the oldest tree seed that’s ever been sprouted. Wheat seeds from pharaohs’ tombs have been sprouted, but none of the plants have survived for very long. Before this, the oldest seed grown was a lotus from China, which was 1,200 years old,” she said. “I’m very excited. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. I’m really interested in finding out what the DNA testing is going to show. I know that date seeds can stay alive for several decades. To find out that they can stay alive for millennia is astonishing.”
“Perhaps one of our ancestors was sitting there on the battlements of Masada eating his dates while the Roman armies were preparing for the final siege and perhaps nonchalantly spitting out a pip,” said Sallon. “Two thousand years later, here I am at Kibbutz Ketura and it’s grown.”