"It's 80 centimeters [3 feet] high with nine leaves, and it looks great," said Sarah Sallon, director of the Hadassah Medical Organization's Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) in Jerusalem.
Several ancient date seeds were taken from an excavation at Masada, a historic mountainside fortress, in 1973. In A.D. 73 Jewish Zealots took their own lives at the fortress rather than surrender to the Romans at the end of a two-year siege.
Carbon dating indicates the seeds are about 2,000 years old.
Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer found the seeds and gave them to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
The seeds sat untouched in a drawer in Kislev's office until last November, when Sallon asked if she could have a few to pass on to desert agriculture expert Elaine Solowey.
"I said, Thank you. What do you want me to do?" Solowey recalls. Told to germinate them, she said, "You want me to do what?"
First she 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.
"I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" she said.
Tu B'shevat, a Jewish holiday known as the New Year for Trees, fell this year on January 25. Solowey chose that day to plant the seeds in new potting soil, hook them up to a drip irrigation system, and leave them locked up.
She occasionally checked on the plants for a few months, and in March she noticed cracked soil in one of the pots—a sure sign of sprouts.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I did everything to avoid contamination, so it had to be that seed. And by March 18 I could see it was a date shoot."
In ancient times the Judean date palm was a staple source of food, shelter, and shade. References to it are made in the Bible, the Koran, and other ancient literature. Judean date palms were wiped out by about A.D. 500.