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“If we had ancient seeds, why couldn’t we grow them?”

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Methuselah remains in his permanent home in the Arava Institute research park on Kibbutz Ketura. (Photo: Supplied)

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For a number of years, every pre-Tu B’shvat I have written about a date palm tree in the Arava which fascinated me. Masada is about two hours from Kibbutz Ketura, but its connections are a lot closer.

London-born Dr. Sarah Sallon is Director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Karem, Jerusalem. She has been friends for many years with California-born botanist Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura.

“In 2005 we were interested in rejuvenating lost flora of Eretz Yisrael. One of the lost flora is the Judaean date. I was discussing with some scientists about their work, trying to extract DNA from ancient seeds.” Dr. Sallon wondered, “If we had ancient seeds, why couldn’t we grow them?” 

Masada came up in the conversation. The fortress, built by King Herod over 2,000 years ago, between 37 and 31 BCE, was home to almost a thousand zealots until the Romans breached the wall in 72 CE and found the bodies of the Jews.

From 1963 to 1965, archeologists Yigal Yadin and Ehud Netzer excavated Masada and found date palm seeds at the approach to the Northern palace. They became part of the custodianship of Netzer, stored at Bar Ilan University.

Sallon directs a research center which studies complementary alternative and integrated medicine through the Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant Project.  After looking at medicine of  Tibet, as an introduction to the ancient world of traditional medicine, they began to look at the medicinal plants of Eretz Yisrael, of which there are approximately 2,900 species. 

She asked Professor Netzer if they could have a few seeds, to see if they would grow, and was given five palm seeds. Hadassah asked her what the seeds had to do with them and she replied, “we study natural therapies.” Hadassah agreed to let Sallon become involved on three conditions—“don’t ask us for money, don’t ask us for anything and don’t embarrass us!”

She took them to her colleague, Dr. Solowey, who planted three of the 2,000-year-old seeds in January 2005. Other seeds were sent to the University of Zurich, Switzerland for radiocarbon dating. They were also tested to see if they were anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-cancer, anti-fungal, anti-malaria, anti-oxidant, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and immune regulatory.

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The date palm was one of the best medicinal trees, domesticated over 6,000 years ago. It can be male or female, and the babies are dates. Medicine of the date palm was used for lung disease, colds, heart disease, hair growth and other things.

After eight weeks, in March of 2005, one seed successfully germinated and was named Methusalah, the biblical person who was said to have lived 969 years. 

Initially, the first leaves had white spots because of a lack of chlorophyll. At 15 months, the seedling was transferred to a larger pot. After 26 months, the plant showed normal development. Sallon says it is in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest cultivated seed.

In 2011, I was permitted to see a still photograph of Methusalah on the computer when its exact location was being kept a secret. At that time, it was two meters high (about 6 ½ feet) and in a “protected quarantine site,” due to its scientific and financial value. A white flower appeared on the inner part of the tree, indicating that Methusalah was, indeed, male. On November 24, 2011, the tree was planted at Kibbutz Ketura, in the presence of the National President of Hadassah, Marcie Natan, and Lord David Wolfson of England.

In 2017, there was hope for Methusalah to be bred with a  female to produce the same date variety eaten commonly in ancient Judea, where it was valued as much for its delicious flavor as for its medicinal properties. Three years later, Solewey acquired 6 ancient date seeds from archeological sites including “Hannah” from Wadi Makukh. (Wadi Makukh is a winter water channel in the Judean desert surrounded by high cliffs and containing a number of caves which were surveyed from 1986 to 1989. She was part of a group of 7 seeds selected for this study.)  Hannah is 175 years older than Methuselah.

Solewey pollinated Hannah from Methuselah and initially got 111 semi-dry dates as a result, which tasted like honey. In December 2021 she provided an update: “Well, we got 600 beautiful dates from Hannah whose seed was 175 years older than Methuselah’s seed this September. We planted Yehudit, another female on Succoth. We are considering tissue culture. I have two males still in the greenhouse.”

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author (Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel), nine cookbooks (including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College.) She lived in Israel from 1970-1980; she and her late husband, Barry, came to live in Jerusalem in 2008, where she works as a foreign correspondent for North American Jewish publications, lectures to senior citizen residences, walks in English in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market. She has been book reviewing for 40 years. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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