Initially thought to be botanically impossible, this successful project has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and other publications. Today, Methuselah has a permanent home in the Arava Institute research park on Kibbutz Ketura. The hope was for Methuselah, a male tree, 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.
So valued was the tree that it became a recognized as a symbol of good fortune in Judea.
The tree so defined the local economy that it became a prime resource for the invading Roman army to destroy. Once the Roman Empire took control of the kingdom in 70 AD, the date palms were wiped out in an attempt to cripple the Jewish economy. They eventually succeeded and by 500 AD the once plentiful palm had completely disappeared, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest.
Radiocarbon dating in Switzerland on a snip of the seed showed it to be 1,990 years old, plus or minus 50 years. So the date seed dates from 35 B.C. to A.D. 65, just before the famed Roman siege.
The seed, nicknamed Methuselah, was taken from an excavation at Masada, the cliff fortress where, in A.D. 73, 960 Jewish zealots died by their own hand, rather than surrender to a Roman assault. The point is to find out what was so exceptional about the original date palm of Judea, much praised in the Bible and the Koran for its shade, food, beauty and medicinal qualities.
Lotus seeds of about 1,200 years of age have been sprouted in China, and after the Nazis bombed London's Natural History Museum in World War II and a lot of water was used to put out the fire, seeds of 500 years of age also germinated.
"But no one had done it from 2,000 years old," said Dr. Elaine Solowey, who germinated the seed and is growing it in quarantine, says plants grown from ancient seeds "usually keel over and die soon," having used most of their nutrients in remaining alive.
Nowadays, the seed-ling has matured and is a father.
“We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild [modern] female, and yeah, he can make dates.”
Dr. Solowey now hopes she will be able to plant an ancient date grove. To do that, she would need to grow a female plant from an ancient seed as a mate for Methuselah, and it’s looking promising – Solowey has managed to sprout a small handful of other date palms from ancient seeds recovered at archaeological sites around the Dead Sea, and at least two of them are female.