The Weird Science of Zombie Plants

Monday April 29, 2019 Written by Lucy Munro

This article on the un-walking un-dead was originally published – in a much longer form – on The Planthunter. Looking for more plant talk? You’re in luck: the Clunes Booktown Festival is on in regional Victoria this weekend, and The Planthunter’s Georgina Reid will be there for the 'Building Gardens that Sustain & Nourish' panel discussion. We just happen to have some double passes to the festival and the panel discussion to give away. Head here to go in the draw to win.

Plant GPhoto: Neil Tackaberry, Solitary. CC BY-ND 2.0

Over the centuries, archaeologists have discovered the remnants of ancient seeds. The tombs and sarcophagi of ancient Egyptians were packed with wheat seeds for the afterlife, and the carbon remains of grains from the ruins of Pompeii reveal the diet of the perished township. But due to the very particular conditions required for seeds to remain dormant and healthy, it is extremely rare for such findings to be discovered intact or with the ability to germinate. In fact, it is so rare that there are only a handful of reported successful plant resurrections in history. Here are a few of them:

Silene stenophylla: the 32,000-year-old zombie plant

You know that movie, Ice Age, where the squirrel is always scurrying about trying to hide his nut? That’s a pretty accurate depiction of the behaviour of pre-Ice Age, Arctic ground squirrels. A group of Russian scientists recently discovered an underground chamber of fruit and seed fossils buried by squirrels in the Siberian forest. The chamber was filled with a supply of more than 600,000 fruit and seed fossils that radio carbon dating revealed to be almost 32,000 years old.

Using in-vitro tissue culture and clonal micro-propagation techniques, the scientists proceeded to resurrect an ancient flowering plant from the tissues of the remains – the Silene stenophylla. Also known as the narrow-leaved campion, the plant is a once-extinct species of the Caryophyllaceae family (the same as carnations, lychnis and baby’s breath) and was last believed to have grown during the most recent Ice Age of the Pleistocene epoch.

Thirty-six plants were successfully raised from the placental tissues of the fossils, creating what are believed to be the most ancient, viable, multicellular, living organisms/freaky zombie plants in the world.

‘Methusellah’ Judean Date palm: the 2,000-year-old-grandad-zombie plant

A magnificent citadel fortified by King Herod the Great once stood on a cliff top in Masada, Israel, overlooking the Judean desert in one direction and the Dead Sea in another. During the Jewish-Roman wars in 73CE, the Romans attacked and held siege of the fortress for over a year. Rather than surrender, the Jewish subjects within the walls set fire to the citadel and committed a mass suicide.

In 1963, a group of archaeologists began digging at the ghost ruins of Masada, unearthing from the remains an undisturbed and intact clay jar that held a handful of seeds from the holy Judean date palm. The fruit of the plant was an integral part of the ancient Mediterranean diet, a common ingredient in tonics for laxatives, aphrodisiac and relaxants. The seeds found within the jar were carbon dated by scientists to be 2,000 years old.

Though an incredible finding for the archaeological team, the seeds remained in a drawer in Tel Aviv for 40 years before Dr Elaine Solowey, an expert in desert agriculture, was given the task of germinating them. Soaking the seeds first in hot water to activate absorption and then in fertiliser and seaweed before planting, Solowey asked for the power of the heavens. In 2005, her wish was granted – one of the ghost seeds sprouted. She named the ancient date palm Methuselah, after the father of Noah, the oldest man in the bible.

Methuselah now grows over three-metres-tall in Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, and has procreated with modern female date palms, giving birth to a new race of half zombie Judean date palm plants. In Jane Goodall’s 2013 book, Seeds of Hope, she wrote: “W]thin a 2,000-year-old seed, a germ of life was still alive, waiting, waiting, waiting for the right conditions to wake, like Rip Van Winkle, into a strange and different world.”

Ginkgo biloba: the maidenhair tree/superhero of the plant world

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 resulted in enormous, radioactive fireballs blooming over the cities of Japan. They devastated almost everything in their path and killed over hundreds of thousands of people. Yet somehow, amongst the horror, death and destruction, 170 Ginkgo biloba trees survived. The trunks of the trees were charred black and the previously lush leaves were burned into nonexistence. But within the depths of the trunks, a cylinder of living cells remained. In the spring that followed, the trees bloomed again – living natural memorials of the pain that had been endured across Japan.

According to Sir Peter Crane, the director of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the great paradox of the ginkgoes is that the species almost went extinct around two million years ago. Considered a dinosaur species in their own right, fossils of the ginkgo, which predate the Palaeolithic period, have been found across Laurasia (modern day Asia). But around the time of the Pleistocene epoch, glacial effects killed almost ever strain of the species, leaving only a handful of remaining trees in the forests of central China. It is from these trees that every gingko alive today is descended.

In the 14th century, a revived interest in the species in Japan led to the widespread planting of ginkgo trees across the country, and in 1923, they were to survive the second of their battles with natural disasters. An earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the township of Kanto near Tokyo, sending the area into flames and levelling everything in its path. But amongst the destruction, the ginkgo trees remained. Though the outer parts of their trunks were burned black, the cells of life remained inside. This incredible rebirth from chaos led to a focus on planting more ginkgo trees across Japan, including in the future A-bomb affected city centres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Head to The Planthunter to read the full, unabridged article. Head here to go in the draw to win a double pass to the Clunes Booktown Festival, which takes place in Victoria this weekend.