MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When's the last time you touched or tasted something 2,000 years old? Researchers in Israel are reporting that they have grown half a dozen date palm trees from ancient seeds, and those trees might soon produce fruit that recreates the taste of antiquity. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: These ancient seeds might never have turned into living trees, except that back in the 1980s, Sarah Sallon was working as a doctor in India, and she got really sick. Antibiotics didn't help; she thinks what cured her were some traditional herbal remedies.
SARAH SALLON: It was just amazing. I mean, it was so incredible. And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something.
CHARLES: So when she moved back home to Israel to her job at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, she went looking for medicinal plants there. And she found lots of them, but she also found stories about ancient medicinal plants that had disappeared.
SALLON: They're just historical ghosts, like the famous date plantations along the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago described by Pliny, described by Josephus - the first-century historian. They're not there anymore. They've just vanished.
CHARLES: But Sallon realized some seeds from those trees still existed. They'd been recovered from archeological sites. And she went to the archaeologists, and she said, let's plant some of those seeds, see if they'll grow.
SALLON: They thought I was mad (laughter). They didn't think that this was even conceivable.
CHARLES: But she kept pushing, and she got some seeds to try this with. More than a decade ago, she and a friend, a farming expert, planted some of these ancient date palm seeds.
SALLON: Six weeks later, little green shoots suddenly appeared.
CHARLES: That must have been so exciting.
SALLON: Yep (laughter).
CHARLES: One tree grew. They named it Methuselah. Methuselah had a problem, though. Date palm trees are a little unusual. They're either male or female; they either make pollen or fertile flowers. It takes both to produce dates. But then Sallon found another archaeologist with a whole trove of seeds recovered from near the Dead Sea. And this week, in the journal Science Advances, she and her colleagues announced they'd grown another six trees from 2,000-year-old seeds, and two of them are female.
SALLON: You could say we found Methuselah a wife (laughter).
CHARLES: The female trees have not flowered yet. But if they do, maybe even this year, the researchers will take pollen from Methuselah, fertilize those flowers and wait for fruit to form - fruit just like what all those people in the Bible ate.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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