Friday, June 3, 2016

Methuselah Update: “He Is a Big Boy Now”

Methuselah, a Judean date palm
Seven years ago, we published a story about Methuselah, a Judean date palm cultivated from a 2,000-year-old seed found during excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada in Israel.

When Jews were expelled from their ancestral homeland by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple s in 70 CE, world-famous Judean date palms became extinct.

Dr. Elaine Solowey, a specialist in rare and medicinal plants at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, was able to germinate an ancient seed and bring back a single living representative of the Judean date palm, a tree extinct for over 1800 years.

"He is a big boy now," says Elaine Solowey. "He is over three meters [ten feet] tall, he's got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good," she says. "We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild [modern] female, and yeah, he can make dates."

In the years since Methuselah first sprouted, Dr. Solowey has successfully germinated a handful of other date palms from ancient seeds recovered at archaeological sites around the Dead Sea. "I'm trying to figure out how to plant an ancient date grove," she says.

To do that, she will need to grow a female plant from an ancient seed as a mate for Methuselah. So far, at least two of the other ancient seeds that have sprouted are female.

Genetic tests indicate that Methuselah is most closely related to an ancient variety of date palm from Egypt known as Hayany, which fits with a legend that says dates came to Israel with the children of the Exodus, Dr. Solowey says.

"It is pretty clear that Methuselah is a western date from North Africa rather than from Iraq, Iran, Babylon," she explains. "You can't confirm a legend, of course."

In addition to Solowey's hopes of establishing an orchard of ancient dates, she and her colleagues are interested in studying the plants to see if they have any unique medicinal properties.

The other date palms sprouted from ancient seeds look similar to Methuselah; distinguishing characteristics include a sharp angle between the fronds and spine.

Source:  National Geographic

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