Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

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