Tag Archives: biodiversity

Judean palm

The scientific name of the Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera refers to its remarkable ability to grow again and even fruit after near death due to drought.

The Judean palm was endemic to Israel. It is the one referred to when the palm tree is mentioned in the Bible and Koran and appears in Roman writing, referring to its medicinal properties, and is pictured on various coins. This would imply as well that the lulav or palm frond used for the Four Species (Arba’at HaMinim) on the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) would be the branches of the Judean palm. Looking at the barren landscape of the Judean desert it is hard to imagine this area covered by palm forests.

Along Dead Sea

The Judean palm, like the balsam plant that used to grow around Ein Gedi and Jericho, became extinct sometime after the Romans, around 500 CE. Today there are palm groves along the Dead Sea shore but these were all imported from the date groves of California or varieties smuggled to Israel from Iraq, Morocco and Egypt in the 1950s.

In mid 1960s, during the archaeological excavations of King Herod’s palace on Masada, Ehud Netzer who was the architect  working with Yigal Yadin found some dry date pits in a clay jar. He passed them along to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar Ilan where they sat in a lab drawer for more than 40 years. Then in 2004 the seeds were rediscovered by Dr Sarah Sallon of the Natural Medicine Research Center who passed them to Dr Elaine Solloway at the NMRC cultivation site on Kibbutz Ketura to try to germinate them. A small specimen of pit was checked and independent carbon dating at University of Zurich dated the seeds dated between 155 BCE to 64 CE.

First Solloway soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed. On the auspicious date of the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat, the Jewish new year of trees, the date pits were planted.

Amazingly, one of the seeds sprouted. It is now about 40 months old, 1.2 meters high with a half dozen leaves. As of February 2020, the palm, named Methuselah had reached 3.5 metres (11 ft).

Date palms are dioecious, meaning that they are either male or female. Researchers are hoping for a female palm which would bear fruit.

Phoenix dactylifera growing after 2000 years at Kibbutz Ketura; photo from March 2022.

UPDATE: An article in the Jerusalem Post reports that the Judean palm (grown from the 2000 year old seed from Masada) that has been growing in a greenhouse at Kibbutz Ketura is now 2.5 meters tall and in a ceremony on Thursday, Tu Bishvat (the Jewish New Year of trees) was transplanted to Israeli soil.

The palm bloomed in April 2011, just past it’s 5th birthday – it’s male.

UPDATE: As of 2019, thirty-two Judean date palm seeds from sites near the Dead Sea have been planted and six saplings (Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah; 4 males and 2 females) have survived. As of February 2020, Adam was 1.5 meters high; both Adam and Jonah have produced flowers. As of June 2021, dates have grown from the pollination of Hannah, one of the female specimens, by Methuselah.

Researchers at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura plan to grow dates resurrected from seeds found at archaeological sites in the Judaean Desert and Masada in large quantities using tissue culture, and then establish them in commercial plantations.

Other Readings
  • Frankincense comes home for Christmas (blogs.timesofisrael.com) – Soloway has successfully grown frankincense from seed at Kibbutz Ketura, another native plant extinct here for over 1500 years.
  • Afarsimon (Commiphora gileadensis) or balsam used to grow along the shore of the Dead Sea and the perfume made from the plant was very expensive and in high demand during the Roman period. By the 6th century after the destruction of the Jewish temple and exile the industry had disappeared. Rumor has it that some wild afarsimon plants were smuggled from Saudi Arabia and had been planted at the Jerusalem Botanical garden even though the weather is too cold. Fortunately, Elaine Soloway got some of the plants and grew them in the desert climate at Ketura and from there they were planted at Guy Ehrlich’s Balm of Gilead Farm at Almog junction along with frankincense and myrrh.