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ilphium is a plant now presumed to be extinct that was highly valued in the ancient world for its medicinal properties, as well as for its use as a spice and contraceptive. Silphium was native to what is modern-day Shahhat in Libya and was cultivated extensively in the ancient Graeco-Roman city of Cyrene. The plant was so important to the local economy that it was featured on the city’s silver coins. The sap of the silphium plant was used as a medicine for a wide range of ailments, including coughs, sore throats, and indigestion. Certain sources extol it as a veritable panacea – a boon to the mortals from Apollo. It was also used as a flavoring agent in cooking, typically as a garnish, and was said to have a zesty taste that was similar to fennel or anise. It was also said to be an aphrodisiac, added in livestock feed as a supplement, and used as a perfume.

What is known about Silphium?

But perhaps the most famous use of silphium was as a contraceptive. The plant’s seeds were said to be so effective at preventing pregnancy that they became a highly sought-after commodity throughout the ancient world. The Romans even went so far as to establish a special tax on silphium in order to control its distribution and prevent overconsumption. Despite and perhaps because of its importance, silphium began to decline in the first century AD, and by the second century it went extinct. While the exact reasons for its disappearance are unknown, it is commonly hypothesised to have been overharvested and possibly destroyed by grazing animals.

Silphium asteriscus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, there are no known plants that are direct matches for silphium, but there are some plants that are similar in taste and function. Fennel and anise are both used as flavorings in cooking and are said to have a similar taste to silphium. Various extant species fit the descriptive profile of the plant established through a multitude of historical sources, each bearing close resemblance to the herb in terms of different recorded attributes.

Health associated with Nature

Interestingly, there is a suggested connection between silphium and the heart symbol, but it is mostly speculative and lacks concrete evidence. One theory is that the shape of the silphium seedpod, which was heart-shaped with a cleft at the top, may have inspired the heart symbol. Another contends that the plant’s association with love and sexuality, due to its use as a contraceptive, may have led to the heart symbol being associated with romantic love. However, there is no direct evidence to support these theories, and the origin of the heart symbol remains a topic of debate among historians and scholars. Belief in the connection retrospectively reinforces the contendership of plants with heart-shaped fruits or seedpods to being silphium or its closest relative.

medical stethoscope with red paper heart on white surface
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

There are various historical accounts of silphium from ancient times, many of which describe its medicinal properties and use as a spice and contraceptive. The plant’s first mention in Greek sources dates back to the 7th-century BC. In the 5th-century BC, Greek physician Hippocrates, recommended silphium as a treatment for respiratory problems, digestive issues, and menstrual disorders while Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus referred to it as a ‘divine gift’, extolling it for its culinary, medicinal, and aromatic utilities, a century later. The Roman poet Catullus, who lived in the 1st-century BC, wrote about silphium in one of his poems, again describing it with the epithet of ‘gift of the gods’ – a bounty that could cure lovesickness, baldness, and other ailments as well as terminate pregnancies.

The same epithet was echoed by Roman poet Ovid in his magnum opus Metamorphoses, where he described the plant as a symbol of abundance and prosperity and noted its use in ancient rituals and festivals. Around the same time in Rome, historian and politician Cicero mentioned silphium in one of his speeches, praising it as a valuable commodity that was worth its weight in gold. In the next century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who is known for his extensive documentation of various flora and fauna, described silphium as a plant with a thick stem, large leaves, and a resinous sap that was used as a medicine and spice. He also noted its use as a contraceptive, saying that the seeds of the plant were so effective that they were worth their weight in silver. It was Pliny who made the first conspicuous postulation of the plant having gone extinct, mentioning that the last known stalk of silphium found in the region was presented to Nero.

A Miracle Plant

Silphium was considered a miracle herb by many in the ancient world due to its numerous medicinal properties and various uses. It was highly valued for its ability to treat a wide range of ailments, including respiratory problems, digestive issues, menstrual disorders, and even as a cure for lovesickness. Due to its use as an effective natural contraceptive, it is said to have been worth its weight in silver, and in certain literary sources, gold. This made it a valuable commodity in the ancient world and contributed to its indiscriminate harvesting, mismanaged trade, and eventual extinction. There is some evidence to suggest that silphium had abortifacient properties and was used as a natural contraceptive in the ancient world. This use is mentioned in several ancient texts, including those of Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder. According to them, the juice or powder of the silphium plant was consumed to prevent or terminate pregnancy. Pliny the Elder, among others, notes that the seed of silphium was so effective as a contraceptive that it was worth its weight in silver. The fact that a number of species in the Apiaceae family (commonly typified as the Parsley family or Carrot family), the taxonomic family to which silphium evidently belongs, seem to exhibit certain abortifacient properties lends some credibility to such claims. It’s important to note that while there is evidence that silphium was used as a contraceptive and possibly as an abortifacient, the exact mechanisms by which it worked are not known and have been lost to history.

Researchers have explored the historical and cultural significance of the plant and studied the pharmacological properties of related plants that may have similar medicinal benefits. Researchers have examined the chemical composition of related plants in the Apiaceae family (including fennel and wild carrot), with a particular focus on the genus Ferula (whose most prominent member is F. foetida – asafoetida), to identify compounds that may have similar pharmacological properties. Such efforts have afforded the identification of several compounds with potential anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antitumor properties. However, the plant’s identity has not been conclusively established, given the lack of definitive historical knowledge of silphium’s chemistry. Researchers have also conducted ethnobotanical studies to explore the traditional uses of plants by indigenous people in various regions, including North Africa and the Mediterranean, where silphium was once grown and harvested but significant geographic and temporal dissonance and distortions have been observed in most such accounts. Scholars have examined the cultural significance of silphium by inspecting instances of its mention across the length and breadth of art, literature, and mythology. However, the comparative and evolutionary analyses that were performed found significant multiplicity and inconsistency in the continuum of narratives cloaking the herb.

The extinction of silphium is a lesson in sustainable consumption and illustrates the consequences of overexploiting natural resources. Silphium was a natural bounty that was indiscriminately extracted and eventually went extinct. The herb was a significant part of the local economy and played an important role in the ancient world’s medicine and culinary practices. However, its reckless exploitation and lack of sustainable planning, harvesting, and supply management practices led to its extinction, demonstrating the need for sustainable usage practices that take into account the regeneration and conservation of natural resources. New studies have suggested that the extinction of silphium could be partly attributed to climate change. Silphium natively occurred in a very narrow stretch of land in the southern steppe of Cyrenaica.

The region’s environmental and consequently demographic decline due to desertification has been well documented through history and corresponds to the plant’s decline and subsequent disappearance with considerable precision. Further, records such as the Historia Plantarum of Theophrastus, indicate that the plant had proven oddly difficult to cultivate. This could have been due to a high degree of habitat-specificity of the plant, owing to factors such as particulars of soil chemistry or conducive elements of local ecology. The alternate hypothesis is that the plant could have been a hybrid and as a result, only been capable of reproducing asexually, making it difficult to be grown elsewhere. When Roman provincial governors took over power from the Greek settlers in the region, they started scale cultivation of the plant which likely upset the nutrient cycle balance of the soil, draining it of its vitality as the rate of depletion of certain key nutrients would have exceeded their rate of replenishment. The plant was likely very sensitive to microclimatic factors which would have been drastically altered by the sudden intensification of cultivation or harvesting.

Disruptions in the plant’s natural habitat in Cyrenaica are attributable to both direct human interference from expansion of settlements, farmland, and pastures as well as natural transition of climate. The extinction of silphium thus serves as a contemporarily-relevant cautionary tale of the consequences of overexploitation and negligent resource management. It underscores the vitality of local grassroots preservation, the criticality of considerate consumption planning, and the pitfalls of indiscriminate top-down resource control. The story of the enigmatic herb ultimately illustrates the importance of sustainable scientific resource management practices to protect and conserve natural bounties for the future.

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