A palm tree with dates growing on it. A palm tree with dates growing on it. Before they went extinct, ancient Judean dates were larger, sweeter and more durable than their modern-day counterparts (pictured from a tree in Israel). (Photo: Dr Ajay Kumar Singh/Shutterstock)

Ancient date plants grow from 2,000-year-old seeds in Israel

The crop was praised for its plumpness, sweetness and healing properties, but went extinct centuries ago.

It's been described as a "historical ghost." The Judean date palm, a species of tree that grew in Israel and surrounding areas thousands of years ago, produced a larger, more durable and sweeter variety of date than the fruit we see today. These dates, grown in plantations around Jericho and the Dead Sea, were recognized by classical writers for their medicinal properties from as far back as the first century.

"The Judean date was used for all kinds of things from fertility, to aphrodisiacs, against infections, against tumors," said Sarah Sallon, a researcher at Israel's Hadassah Medical Center. "This is all part of the folk story."

Over time, the crop vanished. By the 19th century, the plantations where the date palms once grew were gone.

Date palm plantations along the Dead Sea in Ein Gedi, Israel. Date palms are still grown in plantations near the Dead Sea, but their fruit is very different from the ancient Judean dates that once bloomed there. (Photo: pokku/Shutterstock)

Now Sallon, who's been working in Israel with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies for the past two decades, is leading the push to resurrect these plants and learn more about their medicinal and nutritional benefits. Thanks to archaeological excavations between 1963 and 1991, including the historic Mount Masada overlooking the Dead Sea, some ancient date seeds were preserved. Sallon and her colleagues used these seeds to plant new trees about 12 years ago.

Morphology of six germinated ancient date seeds recovered from excavations in the Judean desert before planting. These well-preserved Judean date seeds were recovered from excavations in the Judean desert and given names: from left, Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, Hannah and HU37A11. (Photo: Guy Eisner)

The project took immense patience. Date palm trees are either male or female, which means both genders are needed to produce fruit. The first tree began growing within weeks of being planted, but it was male, and it would only produce pollen. In order to determine whether the same ancient Judean dates could be grown, the team needed to grow female trees, too.

Last week, the team announced its experiment had finally borne fruit (pun intended). A total of seven date palm trees – two female, five male – have germinated, proving the longevity and hardiness of the crop. Sallon published her findings on Feb. 5 in a study in the journal Science Advances. She's also working on a children's book telling the story of the first Judean date palm tree planted in the project – a male tree named Methuselah.

Ages in months at time of photograph (A to C) Adam (110 months), Jonah (63 months), and Uriel (54 months). (D to F) Boaz (54 months), Judith (47 months), and Hannah (88 months). To the delight of the researchers, the Judean date seeds eventually germinated. (Photo: Guy Eisner)

And all the while, Sallon is waiting to see what kind of fruit is produced from her resurrected trees. It might not have the same qualities as the ancient Judean date. But some improvements over the modern variety might be present, offering an option to people looking for herbal remedies or just a sweet snack.

"These are something exceptional," Sallon said of the plants. She said it's rare to find seeds that are still viable after being extinct for so long. "It's a story of nature's amazing powers to regenerate itself."

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Ancient date plants grow from 2,000-year-old seeds in Israel
Sarah Sallon, a researcher at Hadassah Medical Center, is leading the push to resurrect the ancient Judean date palm and learn more about its benefits.