Dates Like Jesus Ate? Scientists Revive Ancient Trees From 2,000-Year-Old Seeds

Feb 6, 2020
Originally published on February 6, 2020 4:22 pm

The world's most remarkable date palm trees might not exist if Sarah Sallon hadn't gotten sick while working as a doctor in India in 1986. Antibiotics didn't help. What cured here, she thinks, were some traditional herbal remedies.

"It was just amazing. It was so incredible," she says. "And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something."

When she moved back home to Israel, to her job at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, she went looking for medicinal plants there. And she found lots of them. But she also heard about ancient medicinal plants that had disappeared.

"They're just historical ghosts," she says. "Like the famous date plantations along the Dead Sea, 2,000 years ago — described by Pliny; described by Josephus, the first-century historian. They're not there anymore. They just vanished!"

Sallon realized, though, that seeds from those trees still existed. They'd been recovered from archaeological sites. So she went to the archaeologists and proposed planting some of those seeds, to see if they'd grow again. It didn't go well at first. "They thought I was mad!" she says. "They didn't think that this was even conceivable."

But she kept pushing, and eventually persuaded a few of them to provide some seeds to try this with. More than a decade ago, she and Elaine Solowey, a researcher at the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, planted some of these ancient palm seeds. "Six weeks later, little green shoots appeared!" she says.

One tree grew. They named it Methuselah. But Methuselah had a problem.

Date trees are a little unusual. They're either male or female; each tree makes either pollen or fertile flowers. But it takes both to produce fruit. So Methuselah by himself couldn't re-create those ancient dates.

But then Sallon found another archaeologist who had recovered a whole trove of date seeds from Qumran, where the ancient texts known as the Dead Sea scrolls had been discovered.

This week, in the journal Science Advances, Sallon and her colleagues announced that they'd grown another six trees from some of these ancient seeds. Two of them are female. "You could say that we found Methuselah a wife," she says, laughing.

The female trees haven't flowered yet, but Sallon is hoping that it might happen this year. If one of them does, researchers will take pollen from Methuselah, fertilize those flowers, and wait for fruit to form: dates just like the ones that people in the Bible ate.

When Sallon talks about this possibility, her voice fills with wonder and expectation. According to ancient writers, she says, these dates "were known for their wonderful sweetness, their very large size, and their ability to be stored for a long time, so they actually were exported around the Roman empire."

Now they may live again, which Sallon takes as a sign of hope for the world. She's written a children's book about this, telling the story from the date's point of view, and hopes to get it published soon.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When's the last time you touched or tasted something 2,000 years old? Researchers in Israel are reporting that they have grown half a dozen date palm trees from ancient seeds, and those trees might soon produce fruit that recreates the taste of antiquity. NPR's Dan Charles has more.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: These ancient seeds might never have turned into living trees, except that back in the 1980s, Sarah Sallon was working as a doctor in India, and she got really sick. Antibiotics didn't help; she thinks what cured her were some traditional herbal remedies.

SARAH SALLON: It was just amazing. I mean, it was so incredible. And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something.

CHARLES: So when she moved back home to Israel to her job at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, she went looking for medicinal plants there. And she found lots of them, but she also found stories about ancient medicinal plants that had disappeared.

SALLON: They're just historical ghosts, like the famous date plantations along the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago described by Pliny, described by Josephus - the first-century historian. They're not there anymore. They've just vanished.

CHARLES: But Sallon realized some seeds from those trees still existed. They'd been recovered from archeological sites. And she went to the archaeologists, and she said, let's plant some of those seeds, see if they'll grow.

SALLON: They thought I was mad (laughter). They didn't think that this was even conceivable.

CHARLES: But she kept pushing, and she got some seeds to try this with. More than a decade ago, she and a friend, a farming expert, planted some of these ancient date palm seeds.

SALLON: Six weeks later, little green shoots suddenly appeared.

CHARLES: That must have been so exciting.

SALLON: Yep (laughter).

CHARLES: One tree grew. They named it Methuselah. Methuselah had a problem, though. Date palm trees are a little unusual. They're either male or female; they either make pollen or fertile flowers. It takes both to produce dates. But then Sallon found another archaeologist with a whole trove of seeds recovered from near the Dead Sea. And this week, in the journal Science Advances, she and her colleagues announced they'd grown another six trees from 2,000-year-old seeds, and two of them are female.

SALLON: You could say we found Methuselah a wife (laughter).

CHARLES: The female trees have not flowered yet. But if they do, maybe even this year, the researchers will take pollen from Methuselah, fertilize those flowers and wait for fruit to form - fruit just like what all those people in the Bible ate.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY CONNICK JR'S "HOW ABOUT TONIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.