Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Oh, How I Hope It’s A Girl!

Vespasian coin and Israeli coin depicting Judean date palmThe Kingdom of Judea was known as the land of Judean date palm just as my home state Illinois is known as the “Land of Lincoln“. Prized for its beauty, shade, and medicinal properties, Judean dates were famous throughout the civilized world. The tree so defined the local economy that Emperor Vespasian celebrated the conquest by minting the "Judaea Capta", a special bronze coin that showed the Jewish state as a weeping woman beneath a date palm. The date growing as a commercial fruit export stopped at the end of 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. From then, the tradition was lost and Judean date palms became extinct. This symbol of grace and elegance was lost, but not forgotten. It was featured on the 10-shekel coin of the New Israeli Shekel.

In the 1970s, during excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada in Israel, two thousand year old Judean date palm seeds were recovered. The cache of seeds was contained in an ancient jar, in very dry conditions sheltered from the elements, which helped preserve the seeds. Radiocarbon dating at the University of Zurich confirmed the age of the seeds at 2000 ±50 years. After their discovery, the seeds were held in storage for 30 years at Bar-Ilan University.

On 25 January 2005, the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat (Arbor Day), Dr. Elaine Solowey, a specialist in rare and medicinal plants at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies pretreated several of the seeds in a fertilizer and hormone-rich solution. She then planted three of the seeds at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arabah desert of southern Israel. One of the seeds sprouted six weeks later.

The plant has been nicknamed "Methuselah," after the longest-lived person 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.

Researchers say it is still not clear whether the sprout is a male or female – but if it's a "girl", the research team led by Dr. Sarah Sallon at the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center, part of the Hadassah medical organization, says "she" could bear fruit as early as 2010. Methuselah's seeds could then be used to cultivate additional date palm trees.

When compared with three other cultivars of date palm, genetic tests showed the plant to be most closely related to the old Egyptian variety Hayany, 13% of its DNA being different. They may have shared the same wild ancestor.

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.”


  1. I am very interested in this project. I only found out about it to-day (9 September 2010). The latest news of it that I have heard was from 2009. How is it all progressing now?

  2. I contacted Dr. Sarah Sallon in June and she told me that Methuselah was doing very well. It is now over 2 meters tall. However, Dr. Sallon still did not know if it is male or female. Perhaps later this year...

  3. Any further word on this? I am unable to find any information later than this page.

  4. Dr. Sarah Sallon very kindly provided an update today:
    "Methuselah is doing well... over 2 meters tall and a male tree. It will be planted out later this month on Kibbutz Ketura and then everyone can come and see it."

    So it's not a girl... I wonder if they jinxed it when they named it after a guy : )

    1. A video update on Methuselah (2012) - An interview with Dr. Elaine Solowey

      Up Close and Personal With 2,000 Year Old Baby Judean Palm Tree


  5. Generally I do not learn article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and do it!
    Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, very nice article.


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