KIBBUTZ KETURA, ISRAEL – Seven years after I revealed her success in sprouting a 2,000 year-old date palm seed found on Masada, botanist Dr Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies has done it again.
1,500 years after the last frankincense tree disappeared from the Holy Land, Dr Solowey has managed to grow the first shoots of a tree whose scented white sap was once worth more than gold.
At Kibbutz Ketura deep in Israel’s Negev Desert, Dr Solowey is carefully nurturing the fragile sapling in her greenhouse, where she is also growing myrrh and balm of Gilead – probably the “gold” brought by the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
“This is the first frankincense tree to set seed in Israel in 1500 years,” Dr Solowey told me as she presented the tiny sapling for its first public photo-call this week. “It was necessary to bring this variety back to the country because the last people growing these trees near the Dead Sea left and the trees left with them.”
Dr Solowey, Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute, has an international reputation as a plant-whisperer, able to revive ancient species, save plants threatened with extinction and domesticate crops for medical and commercial use.
In Dr Solowey’s nursery at Kibbutz Ketura
In 2005, I helped Dr Solowey make headlines around the world when she grew a 2,000-year-old date palm seed discovered in the ruins of Herod’s palace on Mt Masada. The Judean palm now growing outside her greenhouse had disappeared from the Holy Land with the Romans.
Dr Solowey is sharing her discoveries with medical scientists, paving the way to new discoveries about the medicinal properties of the plants.
Back in the first century, frankincense, myrrh and balm of Gilead – known as “gold” to the ancients – were prized for their aroma and for their healing qualities. They were among the 11 ingredients of the secret recipe used for the incense in Solomon’s Temple and used as medicines in both ointment and drinkable preparations.
According to Matthew 2:11, Magi, or wise men, followed a star to Bethlehem where they found the infant Jesus and “presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
The Three Wise Men may have been healers bringing the most effective of their traditional remedies to the baby and his mother in Bethlehem.
The plants are mentioned many times in the Bible. The method used to prepare them was so valuable that they became a source of huge wealth for the ancient Israelite kings and the formulas were handed down within families and kept a closely-guarded secret.
As well as producing strong aromas, they were said to help treat wounds, poisoning, leprosy, worms, stomach upsets and snakebites and were also used as anaesthetics.
One of the most important ancient production facilities was found east of Bethlehem at the oasis of Ein Gedi on the shore of the Dead Sea. The Song of Songs mentions the fragrance of the perfumed trees growing at Ein Gedi, which was known as “Arugot Habosem” – The Scented Flower Bed. The special plants thrived in the combination of year-round sunshine, fresh spring water from the oasis and the CO2-rich climate created by the natural sinking of heavy carbon dioxide into the Dead Sea canyon, the lowest place on earth. It would have been a convenient stopping-place for a trio of wise men arriving from the Orient.
An ancient inscription in the mosaic floor of the synagogue at Ein Gedi curses anyone “revealing the secrets of the town” – understood by scholars to be a primitive form of patent control over the secret methods of production.
When the ancient Jews were driven from the Holy Land 1,500 years ago, they took their secrets and their wondrous trees with them to Yemen and Egypt.
Dr Solowey with Methuselah, grown from a 2,000 year-old date seed, at Kibbutz Ketura
Recently, botanists have planted cuttings in Ein Gedi and Neot Kedumum, but it was only this year that Dr Solowey was able to nurture one of the three rare frankincense trees in her possession to flower and then succeeded for the first time since the Roman era to grow a new sapling from seed using fertilizer made from seaweed.
“I’m not entirely sure why they died out. They don’t feel as at home here as they once did. Perhaps there’s been a change of climate,” she says.
Comments in the Bible suggest the Holy Land was much colder in ancient times. Geological findings indicate that the rainfall was at least double what it is now.
“There was more rain and I think it was a lot colder,” says Dr Solowey. “It’s entirely possible that the climate has changed to the point where we have to find places where these trees, which were formerly comfortable near the Dead Sea, are comfortable now.”
Frankincense leaves produce a white sap with a a pleasant and flowery smell, that gives off a striking multi-layered scent when it is burned as incense. Biblical myrrh was probably commiphora abyssinica, a thorny plant with a clear sap that turns red when heated.
“All of these trees are incredibly medicinal. They are basically anti-inflammatories. They are good for skin diseases,” says Dr Solowey.
“They were very valuable in ancient times, more than I think that we know about. I’m investigating their medicinal properties. We’ve made discoveries about fractions that may turn into therapies, but are only now starting to be investigated in a very serious manner. Now we have a good idea where the good stuff is, we’re looking into this more seriously,” she says.
This year a major breakthrough was achieved when a team led by Dr Rivka Ofir, science director of the Dead Sea-Arava Science Centre of Ben-Gurion University, discovered that the balm of Gilead contained the compound caryophyllene, which acts against cancerous tumor cells and is also known for its anti-inflammatory, local anaesthetic, and antifungal properties.
Dr Ofir is expanding her research into other plants, including frankincense and myrrh.
“Elaine’s work has significant implications for modern medicine. We are researching ancient plants and also traditional cures used by the tribes in this area. This is one of the future directions for new drugs,” she says.
Meanwhile, Dr Solowey and her colleagues have developed a face and hand cream called My Angel using myrrh, frankincense and other traditional ingredients – though not from the precious seedling.
“I mostly use it on my hands,” she says. “It’s excellent for cracked and chapped skin and sores that don’t heal.”