A male date palm tree named Methuselah that sprouted from a 2,000-year-old seed nearly a decade ago is thriving today, according to the Israeli researcher who is cultivating the historic plant.
The plant was sprouted in a laboratory in 2005, and when a National Geographic news story about the event resurfaced this week on the social media website Reddit, we decided to check in on Methuselah and see how it's doing. (See our 2005 story: “2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving.”)
"He is a big boy now," says Elaine Solowey, the director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel.
"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 2005, Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture, germinated the ancient seed, which was recovered decades earlier from an archaeological excavation at Masada, a historic mountainside fortress. The seed had spent years in a researcher's drawer in Tel Aviv.
In the years since Methuselah first sprouted, 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'll 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.
If Solowey succeeds, she notes, "we would know what kind of dates they ate in those days and what they were like. That would be very exciting."
In 2012, scientists in Russia were able to grow a plant from 32,000-year-old seeds that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel in Siberia. (See "32,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life—Oldest Yet.")
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, 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 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, Solowey says, include a sharp angle between the fronds and spine.
"A lot of people have kind of forgotten about Methuselah," Solowey says. "He is actually a really pretty tree."
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