The Resurrection of the Judean Date Palm

In lieu of the many more topical events that I could write about,  I’ve decided to make a brief post about a rather interesting – and comparatively more lighthearted – scientific discovery.

Below is a picture of some seeds of the Judean Date Palm, a plant native to Israel.

I should say, was native to Israel – this variety of date palm has been extinct for around 2,000 yeas. It was once prolific throughout ancient Judea (today’s Israel and Palestine), with thick forests towering up to 80 feet long and stretching for miles; the entire Jordan River valley was blanketed by them from the Sea of Galilee in the north, to the shores of Dead Sea in the south. The palms were a defining characteristic of the landscape, as well as the people that lived there: Judean palms were taken up a symbols of the Kingdom of Judea, and even the Romans, upon conquering the area, minted new coins bearing the symbol in commemoration of their conquest. The trees may even have been indirectly referenced in Biblical literature several times.

Historical records also show that they were more than just symbols of state and beauty (the Jews called them tamar, loosely translated to mean elegant and graceful). The palms were said to bear among the most delicious and nutritious fruit in the region, such that even Pliny the Elder, a famed naturalist and author at the time, was said to take notice of them. They provided a source of food, raw materials for shelter, and shade – all of which were crucial in a harsh and dry environment. They were said to bear medicinal properties as well, including the curing of various diseases and infections, treatments for tumors, and even acting as a mild aphrodisiac. Needless the say, the plant was a stable of Judea’s economy, thanks to it’s useful properties and exquisite fruit.

Alas, it appeared the Romans contributed to wiping it out anywhere from 150AD to 500AD, though it’s hard to be sure if this is true, or how it happened. The Judean palm would be just another long-dead  form of life, nothing to cry about or even notice after nearly two millenniums.

Then, in the mid-1960s, excavations at Herod the Great’s palace revealed an ancient jar full of preserved seeds. They’d been isolated in a dry and protected locations for centuries, and were confirmed to have been around from at least 64AD, if not sooner. They were stored at a university for around 40 years until 2005, when some researches decided to give them a go following some pre-treatment in a special fertilizer solution. The end result:

Isn't it cute?

Only one of the seeds sprouted, but since this picture was taken just a few years ago, it’s thrived and is currently around six feet. Scientists are hoping it will bear fruit soon, so as to allow the species to be re-introduced into its old habitat (and no doubt to sample it’s supposedly delectable dates, and perhaps check if those properties aren’t all hype).

Maybe I’m putting a bit more attention into this topic than it merits, but I can’t help but feel intrinsically excited about a living thing being, well, brought to life. The fact that something extinct could still have a slim chance at being resurrected really fascinates me, especially as modern science may allow for us to accomplish this more than we could’ve imagined. Indeed, an article in the New York Times last year explored the possibility of bringing back dead species – including Mammoths – through clones. If seeing a tree spring to life from centuries old seeds is exiting, imagine a real-life woolly mammoth (practical implications aside).

7 comments on “The Resurrection of the Judean Date Palm

  1. Pingback: The Lazarus Plant « Sarvodaya

  2. I think what you’re talking about is the caffé maron (Ramosmania rodriguesii) native to the island of Rodrigues. It was long believed extinct until a schoolboy on the island found one, alive but in very poor condition. The process used to grow new specimen was actually quite different than with the Judaean date palm. I think it was microclonal propagation and the work was done at Kew in England. This is somewhat similar to what has very recently been done in Russia with the 30,000-year-old specimen of narrow-leaved campion or selene stenophylla, grown not from seed but from fruit tissue preserved in permafrost.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t notice that you had done an earlier post on the caffé maron. By the way, the selene stenophylla is not an extinct species, but they found that the resurrected specimen was a somewhat different phenotype.

  4. It’s just that I hadn’t seen the other post. After having read in the news about the Russian achievement, I came across this older piece of yours and commented on it, not realizing that you had just posted about the Siberian plant. Anyway, it’s an interesting blog, I wish you the best.

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