In 1973, a few date seeds were taken from Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an ancient fortress of historic importance at the plateau top of a rock mountain.
The fortress was the sight of the Siege of Masada, a battle in the First Jewish-Roman War. Although history disputes this claim, many believe that the resident Jewish families committed suicide rather than accepting defeat at the fortress.
So, what was so special about these date seeds? Archaeologists believed they were ancient when discovered. Carbon dating proved they are about 2,000 years old. In the 70s, the seeds were left in the care of the Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Mordechai Kislev in Tel Aviv.
From 1973 until last November, they remained untouched. Then, the director of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC), Sarah Sallon, asked to germinate the seeds. Germination, which most often means sprouting, is when an organism grows out of a seed. Needless to say, many people were skeptical of Sallon when she asked to sprout the 2,000-year-old seeds.
The task of germinating the seeds was given to Elaine Solowey, who serves as the director of an experimental orchard and the NMRC’s site in Israel at Kibbutz Ketura. After receiving the seeds in November, it took three months until, in January, she was able to get the project in motion.
According to National Geographic, the process Solowey had to go through to properly germinate the seeds was extremely intricate. “First she soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed.”
Solowey was skeptical that she would see any results, despite her efforts. Nevertheless, she planted the seeds on a Jewish holiday referred to as the New Year for Trees. It fell on January 25th this year. The holiday would mark the significance of the project no matter the result.
She checked on the seeds often and, in March, she spotted the first sign of sprouting: a hairline crack in the soil. By March 18th, she could see the date shoot clearly.
Now, the date has continued to grow and is 80 centimeters (3 feet) high. The date contains nine leaves, and the NMRC went so far as to say that it is thriving. Sarah Sallon nicknamed the tree Methuselah, the name of the oldest person in the Bible’s Old Testament.
Dates were a very important food in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and were known for their medical properties and considered an aphrodisiac.
King David in the Old Testament even named his daughter after the date tree’s Hebrew name, Tamar. In the New Testament, Jesus received date palm leaves as gifts while riding into Jerusalem.
Sallon wonders if the tree, given its age and the importance once placed on similar trees, could hold some medical benefits that cannot be found in modern date palms.
To avoid speculation and misinformation, Sallon is researching the plant intensively, even going into the DNA of one of the date tree’s leaves. Sallon hopes to publish early findings in a peer-reviewed journal early next year.
According to the Louis L Borick Natural Medicine Research Center website, the NMRC, directed by Sarah Sallon, focuses on integrative medicine, which they define as holistic, non-traditional approaches to health care. They look to find new directions in every medical field imaginable, including nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, and public health.
There are many mysteries left to discover about the date tree. For example, if it is a female tree it can even begin bearing fruit in about four years.
Modern date trees in Israel were imported from other countries such as Egypt in the 1950s, so there is little we know for sure about Israeli-native dates.
Sallon’s mission, whatever the consequences, is to make all of the findings on the tree public information and make sure any medicinal benefits from this date tree are utilized to their fullest potential.