Bill Slott

A date tree named Methuselah

These were likely the trees King David was looking at when he described how the righteous person will blossom
Methualeh  (Photo: Yuval Ben Chai)
Methualeh (Photo: Yuval Ben Chai)

In my community, there is a tree called Methuselah. Named after the oldest man in the Bible, Methuselah was grown from a seed found in a ceramic bowl that had been stored on Masada by the Zealots 2,000 years ago. Cultivated by Dr. Elaine Solowey, one of the founders of our kibbutz, a researcher of desert agriculture, in cooperation with Dr. Sarah Sallon of the Hadassah Department of Natural Medicine, the seed sprouted 18 years ago. Methuselah has appeared in The Guinness Book of Records.

But what makes this tree significant is not really its status as a record-holder. Methuselah is a special variety of date, called the Judean date, central to the economy of Israel during the time of the Bible. The Judean date has been extinct for over 1,000 years. Methuselah is like a little botanical version of Jurassic Park. Up until a few years ago, however, that would have been the end of the story, because Methuselah is a male date tree, and his flowers produce the pollen, whereas one needs the flowers of the female to bear the fruit. However, 10 years ago, a few Judean date seeds from other ancient sites, including Qumran (the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls) were sprouted, and one of these trees, a female dubbed Hannah, was planted a few feet away from Methuselah. When the time came, Hannah (whose seed was dated even 200 years earlier) was pollinated with Methuselah’s pollen. That year Judean dates were eaten for the first time in millennia.

Methuselah et al have been featured on the front page of the New York Times and busloads of visitors stop in on their way to Eilat (often without warning) to see the famous tree. Methuselah even appears in Google Maps as the “Holy Ancient Date Palm.” (Please believe me – no one in our community would ever call it that.)

Dr. Solowey regards all of this hoopla with bemused patience. She considers Methuselah a delightful scientific curiosity, but certainly not the work of which she is the most proud. For over 40 years she has faithfully cared for an experimental orchard with more than 300 kinds of fruit trees, and she has spent her life studying and cultivating trees that are not well-known or not grown commercially but might someday save lives. But, she laughs, “Everybody wants to see old Methuselah.”

One might wonder why. This tree does not offer a cure for any disease, or unique nutritional value, or even any insights into ancient history. It just provides a small nice-tasting date that could never compete commercially with the medjoul variety growing on the 14,000 trees in our fields.

So it can’t be used for anything. Is that a problem? A friend and neighbor here on Ketura is a mathematician and loves pointing out numerical phenomena like the Fibonacci sequence or perfect numbers. When invariably he is asked what, if anything, you can do with them, he always answers: “What can you do with the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?”

People find beauty and meaning in all sorts of things. Some of us seek out the ancient, the mystical, the journey back in time, whether in buildings, gravesites, science fiction stories, or in this case fruit trees.

This is a place where science and poetry meet. The trees that King David was looking at when he wrote the words “Tzadik Katamar Yifrach” (“A righteous person will blossom like a date tree”) were probably these. Keep in mind that David’s poetic palette was limited to the plants and animals of the land of Israel, so when he searched for something tall and strong whose branches reach towards the heavens in prayer, a date tree was the perfect metaphor. The date branches that Jesus’ followers waved in celebration on Palm Sunday were very likely Judean date palms. It was a Judean date tree that King Solomon was dreaming of when he wrote in The Song of Songs “You are as stately as the date palm and your breasts are like its bunches.”

In a few years, there will be more and more Judean date trees. We will have a little grove and people can come to Ketura and read scripture in the shade of the trees that inspired prophets. The system of replanting offshoots and cultivating nurseries full of trees using tissue culture is such that within a few years there will be groves of Judean dates all over the country and beyond, and none of them will be that special. Certainly, no one will be coming to visit “Old Methuselah.” This is as it should be. Elaine was the midwife of this new-but-ancient tree, but we are all free to be transported by it, each in our own way. After all, you can’t patent a plant.

But today, right now, these days and perhaps these few years, there is something very special, very sweet and innocent in a tree that sits right next to the parking lot where I wait for visitors. They follow me to the tree, they hear the story, and then, occasionally, there is a sudden “aha!” when someone realizes that they have taken one step closer to the untouchable antiquity of the imagination.

About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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