Friday, October 21, 2016

Worth the Wait - What happens when you plant a 2000 year old seed

We're in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot, where we'll shake the Lulav and Etrog daily. The Lulav, which consists of a bundle of branches from 3 different species is hardly lacking for symbolism. But here's a new (to me) story relating to the palm frond that that's included in the Lulav:

During excavations at the site of Herod the Great's palace in Israel in the early 1960's, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years. For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.

"I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong.

Amazingly, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout -- producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries, becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.

That's right, ancient seeds are discovered and promptly stored in a drawer. The tree grown from the ancient seeds is known as Methuselah.

It's been about 10 years since Methuselah was planted, and he's now able to reproduce:

"He is a big boy now. He is over three meters [ten feet] tall, he's got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good," Solowey says. "We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates."

Making dates...Mazel tov!

Interestingly, Methuselah's genetic makeup backs up the midrash about the origin of date palms in Israel:

Methuselah is a Judean date palm, a variety that was wiped out sometime in the 6th century, making the lonely male long the only one of its kind. Genetic testing reveal that Methuselah is closely related to an ancient variety of date palm from Egypt called Hayany – which corresponds with the legend indicating that dates came to Israel with the Exodus, Solowey says.

"It is pretty clear that Methuselah is a western date from North Africa rather than from Iraq, Iran, Babylon," she tells National Geographic. "You can't confirm a legend, of course."

So what does this have to do with Sukkot? As I've written about before, it's hard not to see our own mortality in the Lulav and Etrog. These object start off as fresh and brimming with life, and in just a few days dwindle to a shadow of their greatness. It's a humble reminder of where we are all headed.

Methuselah reminds us that this simple arc of life can be upended. Methuselah came from the seeds found in Masada, spent nearly 2000 years just waiting for an opportunity to grow, and then grew out of the most unlikely circumstances. Looking at the palm frond in the Lulav bundle, I can't help but think of Methuselah and remember to never count out the audacity of life. L'Chaim!

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