The wind ruffles the leaves of the date sapling in its planter, and Dr. Elaine Soloway quickly shields it. "There's only one plant like this in the world, and I'm still worried about it," she says. Methuselah - that is the sapling's name - is indeed unique. In 2005, Soloway, from Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, germinated it from a 2,000-year-old date seed found at Masada.
For the past two millennia, since approximately the time of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, in 66-73 C.E., the seed lay dormant, until Soloway and her team breathed life into it, making it the oldest seed ever to germinate.
For two years, the seed was kept in isolation in a plant nursery to protect it from the modern diseases to which it would have been vulnerable. Now that it is stronger, Soloway is planning on transplanting it. "I think it has a future," she says.
Last week, Methuselah underwent chronological testing, using the radioactive isotope Carbon-14, which confirmed that the tree grew from a seed that lived when the Romans ruled the land.
If the sapling continues to flourish, Soloway believes they will be able to renew a species of date that grew in the Kingdom of Judea at that time. Soloway says the type of date grown by ancient Judeans disappeared in the centuries following the repression of the revolt.
Dates presently grown in Israel were brought here from other countries in the Middle East, particularly Iraq, and do not derive from ancient stock.
"People tell me the tree I'm raising looks like a typical palm you might see in your dentist's waiting room," says Soloway, who teaches at Ketura's Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. "But that's not true." Soloway says the first leaves that have sprouted are extraordinarily long. "We don't know yet if it's a male or a female, but if it's a female, in another two or three years we'll be able to know how dates tasted in Judea in ancient times."
According to historical sources, that taste was splendid. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century C.E., wrote that Judea's dates were known for their succulence and sweetness.
The date was identified so closely with Judea that Roman coins minted after the end of the Great Revolt depicted among its symbols a palm tree, together with the words "Judea Capta."
The seed from which Methuselah sprouted was found in a jar into which the inhabitants of Masada threw the pit of the dates they ate. Together with dozens of other seeds, it was found during excavations in the 1970s conducted by Professor Ehud Netzer.
The idea of germinating the seed came from Dr. Sarah Salon, of the Natural Medicine Research Unit of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Karem.
Soloway said that to resuscitate Methuselah, she soaked the pit in warm water and fertilizers. She then planted it "on Tu Bishvat, for luck." Soloway says she did not believe the seed still had life in it. But then, six weeks later, "the bed cracked, and two weeks after that, the first leaf came out. It was like a miracle, but the plant was still at risk. It had a strange color, a kind of marble-white. Apparently there was something wrong with the nutritional components in the seed, Soloway recalls. "In any case, when the seedling started to grow roots, after a few months, it didn't keep it from growing."
Soloway, 54, who comes from a California farming family, has been living at Ketura for more than 30 years. She deals mainly with medicinal plants at the Arava Institute, which trains people for environmental leadership roles. "To bring back the date palm of Judea to the world is not only a symbol, but is also useful to agriculture," she says. "But we are also trying to bring back other plants from the biblical period."
Soloway is also growing frankincense and myrrh, plants mentioned in the Bible, in her hothouse. She is now trying to acclimate the plants, which were brought from Somalia and Yemen. "Incense was made from these plants in the days of the Bible, but they apparently have characteristics that can make them very useful to modern medicine - especially as anti-inflammatories," Soloway says.