Scientists cultivate date palm from 2,000-year-old seed

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The Independent Online

Scientists have grown a sapling date palm out of a seed from about 2,000 years ago which is believed to be the oldest to have been germinated.

Scientists have grown a sapling date palm out of a seed from about 2,000 years ago which is believed to be the oldest to have been germinated.

The plant, which has grown to almost 12ins, came from a seed found during excavations at the ancient desert fortress of Masada, where 960 Jewish zealots committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans AD73.

Israeli researchers believe it could help them to generate new medicines by uncovering the secret of why the ancient Judaean palm Phoenix dactylifera was so valued for its health-giving properties as well as its beauty and the protection it offered from the sun.

Sarah Sallon, the British-born director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre in Jerusalem, who is in charge of the project, said the ancient tree's dates might prove to be very different from those currently grown in Israel, an Iraqi strain imported from California since the Second World War. She and her colleagues have already sent a leaf from the tree, nicknamed Methuselah, for DNA analysis.

Dr Sallon added: "Dates were highly medicinal. They had an enormous amount of use in ancient times for infections, for tumours.

"We're researching medicinal plants for all we're worth. We think that ancient medicines of the past can be the medicines of the future."

Dr Sallon, who trained as a gastroenterological paediatrician at University College London, said: "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." Some 500-year-old seeds were germinated when they were soaked with water by firefighters after the Natural History Museum in London was bombed in the war.

Dr Sallon added: "We'll watch it and see if there are any differences. One of the leaves that have come up now is a beautiful leaf but it's much longer than the normal date leaf. Every little thing that it does we shall watch and observe and hope to keep it alive. It may die."

Examination of the dates, if there are any, will be a long-term project. Assuming that the sapling survives, it will only start to bear fruit after about 30 years - and then only if it is female.

Dr Sallon originally persuaded Mordechai Kislef, director of botanical archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, to part with three of the seeds he had been given by Ehud Netzer, who excavated Masada in the 1970s. She then gave them to Elaine Solowey, a scientist at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based at a kibbutz in the southern Negev. Dr Solowey soaked the seeds in hot water before treating them with hormone-rich acid, and a fertiliser based on seaweed and other nutrients.

The Roman natural historian Pliny records plentiful date forests between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, and the dates of Judaea were praised as increasing longevity, as an aphrodisiac, for curing infections and as a laxative, before dying out in the Middle Ages. The Prophet Mohamed stressed the date's importance as a vital food and for medicine. It is described in the Koran as a "symbol of goodness".