Here’s a story about a plant that’s conservative in the best sense of the word: it protected the life of a civilization, it grows in the desert, and it’s been able to hold on to its own life force for 2,000 years.
In the 1970s, archaeologists excavated Herod the Great’s palace on Masada, in Israel. One of the things they discovered was an ancient jar which proved to hold Judean date palm seeds, Phoenix dactylifera, still dry and well-preserved. When they were radiocarbon-tested, they were found to be about 2,000 years old. One theory is that they are the pits spit out by soldiers, caught in the compound during a Roman siege. Rather than surrender, they committed mass suicide. But they left their date pits behind.
Those soldiers are long gone, but the seeds are moving on to a new life. Thirty years after their discovery, on the Jewish new year of trees (Tu Bishvat), Dr. Elaine Solowey soaked three Judean date palm seeds in a solution of fertilizers and hormones. Then she planted them at a desert kibbutz. Six weeks later, one had come up and started forming fronds; by June 2008, depending on whose report you read, it was four feet (1.4 meters) or five feet (1.5 meters) high, with nearly a dozen fronds.
“Methuselah” (the tree is named after the oldest person in the Bible) broke a previous record of old-seed-sprouting: a 1,300-year-old Chinese lotus seed. The Judean date palm may be younger than some ancient grain seeds that have been sprouted, though. Nobody knows yet whether Methuselah will bear fruit; as with many ancient plants, date trees are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees. You can see it pictured in its smaller stages here.
Judean date palms were an important part of ancient Judean culture – so important that they became a symbol of Judea itself. When the Romans invaded, they found forests of 80-foot date palms, part of a fruit-export business, and a source of shade and shelter as well as food for the residents.
Any sweet-fruit-bearing tree is important, not only for the candy rush but for the things you can make from fermenting and processing their sugars: vinegar (for disinfection and food preservation) and alcohol (no need to describe its uses, I think). The rest of the tree was used to make furniture, rope, fuel, and packing material.
Probably because of their generous gifts to the people who grew them, Judean date palms are were a symbol of grace and elegance in ancient Jewish culture; the name “Tamar” is derived from the date palm’s ancient Hebrew name. Judean date palms were also used medicinally, for anything from a hot sex life to tumors, heart problems to constipation. But by about 70 CE, when the Romans invaded for the second time, the date palm was on the decline; the fruit-export business had stopped. By 500 CE, the Judean date palm had disappeared.
Until now. Genetic tests show that its DNA is most closely related to an old Egyptian variety, Hayany. It may contribute endurance and disease resistance if it’s crossbred with other dates. (It seems as if it would certainly contribute to longevity.) Modern Israeli date palms are a strain originally from Iraq, which arrived in Israel via California. As far as anyone knows, they don’t have the medicinal qualities of the ancient Judean date palm.
In ancient Egypt, date seeds were placed in pharoahs’ tombs, symbolizing immortal life. Whether this refers to date’s medicinal powers, or just the everyday miracle of a plant’s ability to renew its own life, that practice gives resonance to the Judean date palm’s botanical name, Phoenix dactylifera. The fabulous Phoenix was able to burn itself at the end of its life – and then fly up, resurrected.
JUNE: A MONTH TO HONOR WATER
In a way, my whole blog is about low-water gardening; that’s the reason I got involved with tulips, and I already loved natives and Mediterranean herbs. During June, my posts will all be about conserving water in the garden. This gives me scope to cover everything from containers to cityscapes, soil to site to sprays, and of course portraits of more of those stellar plants that spread their glories with little or no watering. (Hint: the “Wild Plants” category will give you quite a few more; so will the “Bulbs” category.)