The Date Palm Spy Thriller


Guest post by Allen Bush

Aside from the Mutiny on the Bounty, where the disgruntled crew tossed breadfruit overboard, I’ve never heard such a High Seas Adventure as the one I learned last month in Israel.

My wife Rose and I were on a “Turning Points of History” cruise of ancient ruins in Israel, Greece and Turkey. Days were filled with bus tours to ruins from Caesarea – south of Haifa – to Troy in Turkey.  My friend, underwater archaeologist John Hale, author of the excellent Lords of the Sea, entertained us and filled in the historic gaps with on-board lectures that covered a fascinating spectrum from Persephone to the Peloponnese.

Our Israeli guide had lots of good stories on the drive from Capernaum to Jerusalem. The fish of the Loaves and Fishes miracle was probably tilapia; the crown of thorns might have been jujube Ziziphus jujuba (Z. spina-christi). Others on the bus tour may remember the tilapia. I’m a plant guy and was more intrigued with the jujube. And my ears were pinned by the story of the date palm.

Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) have been cultivated in the Middle East for thousands of years. In 2005, a two-thousand-year-old seed found near the Dead Sea, now known as the Judean date palm, was germinated and held the record for nearly seven years as the oldest seed with a viable embryo. The plant is now over 8’ tall. The record was shattered earlier this year by seed germinated by Russian scientists from a 32,000-year-old arctic campion that was described as resembling Silene stenophylla.

The Jordan River, near Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, is comparable in size to Beargrass Creek, just down the hill, past our back yard here in Kentucky. You could skip a stone across either. The Jordan River flows south for miles along the irrigated valley planted with olives, oranges, melons, and strawberries to hoop houses filled with cut flowers. The Golan Heights rise to the east. As we approached the oasis town of Jericho, there were acres of tall date palms in long straight rows on either side of Highway 90.

Sometime in the mid-1950s the Israeli “Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations”, known as Mossad, hatched a covert plan. Israeli farmers, some of them perhaps doing double duty for Mossad, couldn’t compete with their regional competitors – the tasty dates grown in Iraq. There were no diplomatic relations between the Israelis and Iraqis, so the Mossad went to work. They sent some agents to Iran, posing as French businessmen.

The Israeli agents spent several months in Iran, gaining the confidence of the Iranians, who eventually were willing to serve as go-betweens with the Iraqis. The undercover Mossad agents purchased 75,000 date palm “pups” – little offsets from mother plants – and put them on a boat to France. Pirates came aboard, somewhere in the Mediterranean, and rifled the cargo. The only items missing, when the dust settled, were the date palm “pups.”  A few days later, the stolen loot ended-up in Haifa, the Israeli port city.

Rose Bush with Persian Dates

The trail goes cold after this. Were the pirated Iraqi date palm “pups” ‘Amir Hajj’, ‘Mozafati Rotab’, ‘Deglet Noor’ or ‘Medjool’ (‘Medjoul’)?

The Holy Land is loaded with tall tales. You can pick your version of miracles or holy trees. The jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) isn’t the only contender for the crown of thorns.  Pollen grains from the thistle-like Gundelia tournefortii were found all over the Shroud of Turin in 1998, but Christian pilgrims weren’t suddenly clamoring to take home thistles. The jujube crown of thrones is still preferred for souvenirs.

John Hale brought early civilization to life with wonderful storytelling throughout our May cruise. The cunning Themistocles and the great Athenian navy with 300 sleek triremes, outnumbered 3-1, whipped King Xerxes and the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C.  Maybe the victors feasted on the sweet meat of Persian dates.

Allen Bush is Director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds and a contributor to Human Flower Project.


  1. I love this story. I would also love to see all of those regions for all there historical value, but know I never will. The insaneness & chaos over there and being an American I’d feel like I had a target on my back.

    The whole time you were telling this story or should I say I was reading, I was picturing in my mind’s eye the southern regions of the Coahchella Valley of which most here will Not think of Date Palm Orchards, but of posh Palm Springs & La Quninta California with it’s country clubs as far as you can see.

    But people are really missing out if they’ve never taken a drive donw through these regions. I remember traveling once a week to El Centro CA for work on Fridays from the mountains above Palm Desert where I lived in Anza. I remember driving through small Date Orchard Farm communities of Thermal, Mecca and Oasis where giant several decades old Date Palm orchards lined both sides of the highway as far as you can see. Under the Date Palm canopy and in between the rows they grew the pink variety of Grapefruit trees. So it wasn’t necessarily a monocrop. Interspersed in between those orchards on other large acreages were various table grape vineyards. What a beautiful drive that was, especially during monsoonal rain season in the summer’s early morning hours.

    I have followed that ancient Judean Date Palm seed story for some time. I also remember in Arizona Highways magazine where some archeologists found an indigneus type of red melon seeds in some Native American pottery near the Grand Canyon & Nevada/Utah border. A third of them did grow. The melons were oddly different shapes but very sweet and flavourful. They actually chose the largest & best shaped melons and grew sees from those and so forth eventually getting a proper melon strain. It must be exciting to experience such a discovery of some ancient gardeners from the past.

    I don’t doubt that everyone here will certainly relate to that type of experience as being a once in a life time memory thrill.

    Thanks Allen Bush for sharing that trip with us.



  2. What an amazing story. I’d never heard of the date plams before. I’m blown away that a seed thousands of years old germinated and grew! Stories like this really give me a thrill (probably only because I’m a real plant geek).

  3. Kevin, you paint a lovely picture of the southern regions of the Coahchella Valley. I’ve never made this drive but you’ve sparked some interest. And, Jeane, many species produce seeds with an extraordinary capacity for survival. Other species produce seeds that have a shelf life of a few months. The Judean date palm, grown from very old seed, is remarkable.

    • Allen, the best time for viewing for me was believe it or not was summertime when the Monsoonal moisture comes up from Mexico and the previous day’s activity or remnants in the way of high clouds creates beautiful sunrises with many yellows, oranges and reds. It’s a quiet time and traffic not so busy. Of course I use to leave Anza, CA up in the mountains at about 4:00am, but 5:00 down there is beautiful. There has been alot of construction changes for which saddens me.

      Many pristine wild areas in between are now country clubs. The freeway 111 has bypassed old Hwy 86 and has caused all those quaint country Markets, Filling Stations, fruit Markets and restaurants to close up shop. I know because I just took a Google Earth road trip down memory lane after explaining the account to you. Oh well, now I’m writting on my blog about Mesquite Habitat restoration along San Felipe Creek in Imperial County along Hwy 86. I’ll have it done by Tuesday, if not tomorrow. I’m off to Silkeborg Dänemark Wednesday for a week.



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