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May. 22, 2015

A Date Palm Named Methuselah

by Thor Hanson

Click to enlarge images
The following is an excerpt from The Triumph of Seeds, by Thor Hansen. Listen to SciFri on May 22, 2015, to hear Hansen discuss the history of seeds and more.
 
The Roman general Flavius Silva arrived at the base of Masada Fortress in the winter of AD 72–73. History tells us he had a full legion of soldiers at his command, as well as thousands of slaves and camp followers. History does not preserve what he was thinking at that moment, but anyone who has ever seen Masada Fortress knows it must have been some version of, “Oh, shit.”
 
Perched atop a 1,000-foot (320-meter) rock spire and surrounded by sheer cliffs, the stronghold boasted fortified casemate walls, watchtowers, and a well-stocked armory. It commanded sweeping views in every direction, and one of the only approaches was a steep, winding trail known ominously as “the snake path.” What’s more, the people defending Masada belonged to a particularly fierce group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii, named for the wicked daggers they used to assassinate their enemies. General Silva must also have realized that while he and his army would be forced to camp in the harsh, rocky desert that surrounded the fortress, the rebels had their choice of villas and palaces styled to the tastes of Masada’s original builder, Herod the Great.
 
The Romans settled in for a long siege. Silva had orders to crush the Sicarii, the last holdouts of a widespread Jewish uprising known as the Great Revolt. Over the course of several months, his engineers erected an embankment that is still clearly visible, rising like a massive wave of earth up the western side of the mountain. When it was finished, Silva’s soldiers marched to the top, breached the wall with a battering ram, and took the fortress by storm. At the time, this victory gave General Silva a major career boost. He served as governor of Judaea for eight years and later returned to Rome as consul, a position second only to the emperor. In retrospect, however, the Siege of Masada did quite a lot more for the cause of Jewish nationalism, for coin collectors, and for our understanding of dormancy in seeds.
 
When Silva’s legionaries entered Masada, they expected to find dagger-wielding warriors, but were met instead with an eerie silence. Rather than surrender or risk capture, nearly 1,000 Sicarii men, women, and children had committed mass suicide. The story of their resistance and sacrifice has become a near-mythic symbol of endurance to the Jewish people. In the run-up to statehood, future leaders of Israel embraced Masada as an allegory for national unity and resolve. For decades young Israeli scouts and soldiers have hiked the snake path as a rite of passage, and Masada now ranks among the most popular tourist attractions in the country. If Silva returned today, he could take a cable car to the top, and he would find the phrase “Masada Shall Not Fall Again” emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs.
 
For coin collectors and seed experts, the defenders of Masada are remembered less for what they did than for what they left behind. Not wanting the Romans to recover anything of value, the last Sicarii moved their possessions and food supplies into a central ware-house and then set the building ablaze. As the wooden beams and rafters burned, the stone walls collapsed inward, forming a heap that would lie undisturbed for nearly 2,000 years. Archaeologists picking through the rubble in the 1960s unearthed a trove of ancient shekels that settled several nagging questions about Jewish numismatics. Not surprisingly, many of the coins featured the graceful curving leaves of the Judaean date palm, a tree whose fruit was both a local staple and a highly profitable export. Emperor Augustus was said to favor them, and vast date-palm orchards lined the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee south to the shores of the Dead Sea. Digging deeper, the excavation team soon encountered provisions: salt, grain, olive oil, wine, pomegranates, and a generous supply of the dates themselves, so beautifully preserved that scraps of fruit still clung to the seeds.
 
While it makes perfect sense for the Sicarii to have stocked up on their country’s most famous crop, finding dates at Masada was still a major event. Though mentioned in the Bible and the Koran, and praised for their sweetness by everyone from Theophrastus to Pliny the Elder, the particular date variety grown in Judaea had long since disappeared—a victim of changing climate and settlement patterns. Now, for the first time in centuries, people could see and hold the fruit that was once considered King Herod’s main source of revenue. What happened next, however, was even more remarkable. Four decades after museum workers had cleaned, labeled, and cataloged the Masada dates, someone decided to plant one.
 
“To say I was wildly excited would be an understatement,” Elaine Solowey told me, recalling the spring day in 2005 when she noticed a lone shoot poking up through the potting soil. An agricultural expert at a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, Dr. Solowey had planted “hundreds of thousands of trees” in her career before she tried the Masada dates. “I really didn’t expect anything to come up,” she confessed. “I thought those seeds were as dead as doornails. Deader than doornails!” Solowey credits her collaborator, Sarah Sallon, for dreaming up the whole idea.
 
“It just seemed meant to be,” Sallon said, when I reached her by phone. “To tell you the truth, I expected it.” It was ten o’clock in Jerusalem and she’d been working late, but Sarah still launched into our conversation with enthusiasm, and somehow also managed to carry on talking with her son in the next room. She even served him a meal. Sarah’s boundless energy made me wonder if the date seed hadn’t sparked to life simply because she’d touched it. Trained as a pediatrician, Sallon has become a world expert on natural medicines, particularly those derived from the native plants of Israel. Her laboratory team works with Solowey’s field crew to raise and test dozens of different medicinal herbs. “But I also became interested in what used to grow here,” she explained, “the things that have disappeared.” Ancient healers used dates from the Judaean palm to treat everything from depression and tuberculosis to common aches and pains. “Bringing it back,” she mused, “might serve a greater purpose.”
 
The sprouting palm that so surprised Elaine Solowey (but not Sarah Sallon) now stands ten feet tall and bears the name Methuselah, after the oldest character mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. But at 969 years, the biblical Methuselah had scarcely reached middle age compared to this little palm tree. Radiocarbon dating confirms that the dates from Masada had probably been stored there for decades before the fortress fell. Methuselah may look like a young tree, but its nearly 2,000-year lifespan makes it one of the oldest organisms on earth. At that age, who can begrudge it a little pampering? “We built him his own gated garden, with his own watering system, burglar alarm, and security camera,” Elaine said with a laugh. “He is definitely a tree that has everything.”
 
Elaine used the male pronoun because date palms are unisexual, and when Methuselah flowered for the first time in 2012, he turned out to have blossoms laden with pollen. To fully bring the Judaean date back from extinction, someone will have to sprout a female seed, too. When I asked Sarah if they were working on it, she seemed almost bursting with the news: “Of course we are!” she exclaimed. “But I can’t tell you about it!” In science, it’s never a good idea to let the cat out of the bag before all the data are analyzed, reviewed, and published. By the time this book is printed, however, Sarah and Elaine may have announced their results to the world. With any luck, those findings will tell us not only how Judaean dates live so long, but their precise flavor and sweetness, and whether or not they can cure a headache.
 
Methuselah’s story ranks as the oldest known example of a naturally germinating seed. It’s a tale of incredible endurance that provides a fitting and peaceful complement to the heroic defense of Masada, and makes it possible that Judaean dates may once again flourish in the Jordan Valley. But it’s hardly the only time that an ancient seed has sprung suddenly and surprisingly to life. In 1940, the study of seed longevity received a jolt when a German bomb hit the botany department at the British Museum. After firefighters extinguished the blaze and cleared away the debris, museum workers returned to find some of their specimens sprouting. Responding to the heat and moisture, the seeds from a silk tree collected in China in 1793 had germinated and sent up perfectly normal-looking shoots. (Three of the seedlings were planted at the nearby Chelsea Physic Garden, where another bomb hit them in 1941.) Ever since then, enterprising botanists have been pushing back the record for longevity—200 years for pincushion proteas and other African exotics discovered in a cache of privateers’ booty; 600 years for a canna lily seed preserved inside a Native American rattle; 1,300 years for Indian lotus seeds recovered from a dry lakebed. The most promising new developments come from the high Arctic, where a team recently transplanted live tissue from a tiny mustard frozen in a squirrel burrow for over 30,000 years. By itself the seed couldn’t germinate, but the fact that any of its parts stayed viable for that long suggests that Methuselah’s record is bound to fall.
 

Excerpted with permission from The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, by Thor Hanson.  Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2015.

 
About the author
Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Guggenheim Fellow, and Switzer Environmental Fellow. He has studied Central American trees and songbirds, nest predation in Tanzania, and the grisly feeding habits of African vultures. His previous books include Feathers, which won numerous awards including the 2013 John Burroughs Medal and the 2012 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Writing, and The Impenetrable Forest, which won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. He lives with his wife and son on an island in Washington State.
 
Author photo by Kathleen Ballard Photography
About Thor Hanson

Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Guggenheim Fellow, and Switzer Environmental Fellow. He has studied Central American trees and songbirds, nest predation in Tanzania, and the grisly feeding habits of African vultures.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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