During 1963-1965, excavations at Herod the Great’s palace on Masada, Israel, revealed a cache of date palm seeds preserved in an ancient jar. They had experienced a very dry and sheltered environment for centuries. Radiocarbon dating at the University of Zurich confirmed the seeds dated from between 155 BCE to 64 CE. The seeds were held in storage for 40 years at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, until in 2005, the seeds were pretreated in a fertilizer and hormone-rich solution. Three of the seeds were subsequently planted at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arabah desert in southern Israel. Eight weeks later one of the seeds had sprouted, and by June 2008, the tree had nearly a dozen fronds and was nearly 1.4 m (4 ft) tall. By the summer of 2010, the sapling stood at about 2 meters tall.
The plant was nicknamed “Methuselah,” after the longest-lived character in the Bible. Methuselah is remarkable in being the oldest known tree seed successfully germinated, and also in being the only living representative of the Judean date palm, a tree extinct for over 1800 years, which was once a major food and export crop in ancient Judea.
Methuselah flowered in March 2011 and is male. The palm may be crossbred with its closest living relative, the Hiyani date from Egypt, to generate fruit by 2022.
When compared with three other cultivars of date palm, genetic tests showed the plant to be closely related to the old Egyptian variety Hayany (also Hiani, Hayani), 19% of its DNA being different, and an Iraqi cultivar (16% different DNA). They may have shared the same wild ancestor.
In addition to its honoured place in Judean history, the palm may contribute useful characteristics, such as environmental tolerance and disease resistance, to modern date cultivars.
Dr. Sarah Sallon, the head of the project, wants to see if the ancient tree has any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today’s date palm varieties. “The Judean date was used for all kinds of things from fertility, to aphrodisiacs, against infections, against tumors,” she said. “This is all part of the folk story.”