The Judean date palm is a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) grown in Judea. It is not clear whether there was ever a single distinct Judean cultivar, but dates grown in the region have had distinctive reputations for thousands of years, and the date palm was anciently regarded as a symbol of the region and its fertility. Cultivation of dates in the region almost disappeared after the fourteenth century CE from a combination of climate change and infrastructure decay but has been revived in modern times.
In 2005, a preserved 2000-year-old seed sprouted. It is the oldest verified human-assisted germination of a seed (the claim in 2012 of a 32,000-year-old arctic flower involved fruit tissue rather than a seed). The palm, named Methuselah (not to be confused with a bristlecone pine tree of the same name), was about 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in)) tall in June 2008. As of November 2011, it is reported at 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) high, having been transplanted from pot to earth. By May 2015, the palm was 3.0 metres (9.8 ft) tall and was producing pollen.
Fruit of the date palm was considered a staple food in the Judaean Desert, as it was a source of food and its tree of shelter and shade for thousands of years, and became a recognized symbol of the Kingdom of Judah. It grew around the Dead Sea in the south, to the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley regions in the north. The tree and its fruit caused Jericho to become a major population center and are praised in the Hebrew Bible possibly several times indirectly, such as in Psalms, 92, "The righteous himself will blossom forth as a palm tree does", and date clusters (Hebrew: תַּלְתַּלִּים) are mentioned in Song of Songs 5:11.
In ancient times, date palms were used for their supposed medicinal properties to cure many diseases and infections, promoting longevity and acting as a mild aphrodisiac. Modern studies have been done in an attempt to confirm their medicinal value.
Its likeness was engraved on shekalim, the ancient Hebrew unit of currency. According to historical sources, the taste of them was something splendid. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist of the 1st century CE, wrote that Jericho's dates were known for their succulence and sweetness, though he distinguished a considerable variety of them and discussed several different varieties by name. Even in the fifth century BCE, Herodotus noted that the greatest importance of the Judean dates was that they were drier and less perishable than those from Egypt and thus suitable for storage and export, which is still an important distinction today.
When the Roman Empire invaded ancient Judea, thick forests of date palm up to 80 feet (24 m) high and 7 miles (11 km) wide covered the Jordan River valley from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south. The tree so defined the local economy that the Roman emperor Vespasian celebrated the conquest by minting Judaea Capta coinage, a special bronze coin that showed the Jewish state as a weeping woman beneath a date palm. The Quran describes how Maryam, mother of Jesus, was advised to eat dates to ease her labor pains; presumably, this would have been a Judean date.
It is sometimes claimed that date growing as a commercial fruit export stopped at the end of 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. However, study of contemporary sources indicates that the date industry continued in Judea throughout the Roman period and that, indeed, the Roman Imperial treasury collected a good deal of the profits. Asaph Goor, in his 21-page article History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land, never mentions any such Roman devastation of the date palms, but rather cites numerous contemporary accounts attesting to the continuing extent of date cultivation through the Roman period. Goor only detects a decline in date cultivation through the period of Arab rule and especially during the Crusades, when he notes that the devastation of the region was particularly hard on the palm plantations. However, despite this, extensive cultivation persisted in Jericho and Zoara, until the agrarian economy collapsed around the 14th century. Goor attributes this final decline to a change in the climate, and quotes several later travelers to the area as to the rarity of date palms, including Pierre Belon, who in 1553 scoffed at the idea that the region could have ever produced the bounty of dates reported in ancient sources.
A date palm is also featured on the ten-shekel coin of the Israeli new shekel.
The book Plants of the Bible by Michael Zohary states: “The Hebrew word for the date palm is ‘tàmâr.’ . . . It became the Jews’ symbol of grace and elegance and was often bestowed by them to women.” For example, David’s beautiful daughter was named Tamar.
During 1963-1965, excavations at Herod the Great's palace on Masada, Israel, revealed a cache of date palm seeds preserved in an ancient jar. They had experienced a very dry and sheltered environment for centuries. Radiocarbon dating at the University of Zurich confirmed the seeds dated from between 155 BC to 64 AD. The seeds were held in storage for 40 years at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, until in 2005, the seeds were pretreated in a fertilizer and hormone-rich solution. Three of the seeds were subsequently planted at Ketura, Israel in the Arabah in southern Israel. Eight weeks later, one of the seeds had sprouted, and by June 2008, the tree had nearly a dozen fronds and was nearly 1.4 metres (4 ft 7 in) tall. By the summer of 2010, the sapling stood about 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) tall.
The plant was nicknamed "Methuselah" after the longest-lived person listed in the Bible. Methuselah is remarkable in being the oldest known tree seed successfully germinated, and also in being the only living representative of the Judean date palm, a tree extinct for over 800 years, which was once a major food and export crop in ancient Judah.
Methuselah flowered in March 2011 and is male. The palm may be crossbred with its closest extant relative, the Hayani date from Egypt, to generate fruit by 2022. Methuselah has produced pollen that has been used successfully to pollinate female date palms. Additional Judean date palm seeds have been grown. Several are female, so it is hoped that it will soon be possible to pollinate a female Judean date palm with the pollen of a male of the same variety.
When compared with three other cultivars of date palm, genetic tests showed the plant to be closely related to the old Egyptian variety Hayani, 19% of its DNA being different, and an Iraqi cultivar (16% different DNA). They may have shared the same wild ancestor.
In addition to its honoured place in the history of Judea, the palm may contribute useful characteristics, such as environmental tolerance and disease resistance, to modern date cultivars.
Sarah Sallon, the head of the project, wants to see if the ancient tree has any unique medicinal properties no longer found in today's date palm varieties. “The Judean date was used for all kinds of things from fertility, to aphrodisiacs, against infections, against tumors,” she said. “This is all part of the folk story.”