Researchers in Israel are giving a new meaning to the term “expiration date.”
They’ve taken date-palm seeds found while excavating ancient sites in the Judean wilderness, prepared and planted them in potting soil, and produced food that we can eat today. Megan Sauter of the Biblical Archaeology Society describes the dates they produced as “not overly sweet with a lovely side taste of honey.”
It reminds me of a family tradition. For as long as I can remember, dates have been a wintertime treat in my home. We put them out around the holidays, along with figs, fruits, and chestnuts.
But our dates don’t come from seeds that farmers collected and stored some 3,000 years ago. That’s the miracle of what the Israelis did. They discovered old but well-preserved seeds at the mountaintop fortress of Masada as well as at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden. Determining their age through radiocarbon testing, they chose not to let the seeds sit in a museum but studied and planted them—and the seeds germinated. They grew into healthy plants, which now have produced delicious dates.
Now that’s resilience.
Most of the seeds they planted, in fact, didn’t sprout. Across the centuries, they had lost their viability. Not even the hardiest seeds last forever.
Many seeds fail to survive beyond a single season. Tomato seeds lose half of their viability after a single year. This means that if you plant a field with year-old tomato seeds, only about half of them will come up. Sweet corn loses about a quarter of its viability each year. Wheat is a lot tougher, but most farmers would prefer to put wheat seeds in the ground than to keep them in storage.
One of the blessings of modern agriculture is that we don’t have to store seeds the way farmers did just a few generations ago. We can order them from producers and plant them when they’re fresh and at their most viable. When I went to college, I was taught to get seeds into the soil quickly, rather than to let them lie around. As a farmer, I’ve always tried to do this.
My father was different. He, too, wanted to get seeds in the ground—but he also was beholden to older habits and sometimes he held on to seeds for years. I recall a big bag of pumpkin seeds that he kept in his basement for decades.
One year, he insisted that I plant them on the farm. I didn’t want to do it because I figured they had lost their viability. But he persisted. As a dutiful son, I agreed to try. And I have to admit, I was a little curious about what would happen. So we planted the old pumpkin seeds on an acre or two.
We indeed grew a few pumpkins, but not nearly what we would have gotten from younger seeds. Mostly we saw a field of scrawny plants that produced nothing. Many of the seeds failed to germinate at all. From an agricultural perspective, it was a wasted effort. From a personal standpoint, at least I received the satisfaction of telling my father “I told you so!”
Farmers can’t look at a seed and know what it will do. Its external appearance won’t reveal if it will sprout or die. We have to put it in the soil and see what happens—or, more precisely, we have to put it in the soil and use the tools of agriculture to coax out of it as much as we can.
That’s what the Israelis did with their old date-palm seeds. They soaked the seeds in a special solution, applied carefully chosen fertilizer, and more. They also studied the genetics of the seeds, learning that they were the result of crossbreeding.
This discovery made me smile, because it shows that the farmers of long ago were fundamentally like the farmers of today. We may know more about the genetics of science today, but from the beginning of time, farmers have been working hard to improve their crops through the trial and error of mixing varieties to improve what they are growing. In the case of the Judean palm dates, the researchers were able to “see waves of crossbreeding in their seeds”. The farmers had been crossbreeding their local trees with foreign varieties to achieve desired traits—in this case, a subtle, specific sweetness.
This age-old goal of farmers never will have an expiration date.
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