for National Geographic News
A sapling germinated earlier this year from a 2,000-year-old date palm seed is thriving, according to Israeli researchers who are cultivating the historic plant.
"It's 80 centimeters [3 feet] high with nine leaves, and it looks great," said Sarah Sallon, director of the Hadassah Medical Organization's Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) in Jerusalem.
Sallon's program is dedicated to the study of complementary and alternative medicines. The center is also interested in conserving the heritage of Middle Eastern plants that have been used for thousands of years.
Sallon wants to see if the ancient tree, nicknamed Methuselah after the oldest person named in the Old Testament of the Bible, has any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today's date palm varieties.
"Dates were famous in antiquity for medicinal value," she said. "They were widely used for different kinds of diseasescancers, TB [tuberculosis]all kinds of problems."
She and her colleagues are currently comparing the structure of the sapling to modern date palms and examining DNA from one of the sapling's leaves. The team plans to publish preliminary results in a peer-reviewed journal early next year.
Several ancient date seeds were taken from an excavation at Masada, a historic mountainside fortress, in 1973. In A.D. 73 Jewish Zealots took their own lives at the fortress rather than surrender to the Romans at the end of a two-year siege.
Carbon dating indicates the seeds are about 2,000 years old.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds and gave them to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
The seeds sat untouched in a drawer in Kislev's office until last November, when Sallon asked if she could have a few to pass on to desert agriculture expert Elaine Solowey.
"I said, Thank you. What do you want me to do?" Solowey recalls. Told to germinate them, she said, "You want me to do what?"
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