Not all plants make it. Some are lost to the garden because of man interfering with the plant’s habitat, while others disappear through greed or stupidity. Silphium is thought to fall into the latter category and stands as one of the earliest recorded ecological blunders that mankind has become famous for. According to legend the plant was a gift from the God Apollo and due to it’s recorded use as a medicine this would make sense. In addition to being seen as a wonder drug it was also a prized seasoning that was allegedly worth its weight in dinari. By the first century A.D. it had become the chief export of the ancient city of Cyrene, in what is now modern day Libya, with the herb being sent throughout the Mediterranean to meet increasing demand. So important was Silphium to the Cyrenean economy that the plant and it’s seeds found their way onto to the coins.
As a plant its value had been known since prehistoric times. Indeed the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans both had glyphs specifically for Silphium. It is described more for the product than botanically and it was the resin which the plant which was important. Looking at the coins it is generally accepted that it was a member of the Ferula (fennel) family. This makes sense for three reasons. Firstly the seeds shown on coins have a similar shape to other members of the family and the depiction of the plant shows long reeds with flowers in an umbrella pattern. The fennel genus has 170 species all growing through the Mediterranean and central and east Asian regions. So to make the assumption that Silphium was infact a member of the Ferula genus is reasonable.
The second reason is there is another member of the same plant family that is valuable for its gum-resin. Asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida) is still harvested for the flavouring and medicinal qualities that it possesses. The last reason is linked to the way in which it became extinct. We know that there was an increasing demand for the meat of animals that had been grazed on the plant. Apparently it imparted a unique flavour very different to when the gum-resin was used in the cooking process. We know that the plant proved difficult to grow commercially and so animals would have had to graze on wild plants. This isn’t surprising from what we know about growing asafoetida. It can be slow to flower, taking several years, and so seed is not readily produced. This seed also needs to be fresh sown as it doesn’t remain viable in storage, so extending its range in a society which relied on feet rather than motors would have been a slow process. Grazing animals would have removed flowers and seeds from plants and this would have reduced the natural seed bank too. Theophrastus mentions its temperamental nature saying it couldn’t be grown in cultivated soil. So to identify Silphium as belonging to the genus Ferula is a reasonable assumption.
When we look at how Silphium was driven to extinction we can see that it is simple greed that led to decline of Cyrene’s fortunes. One or two farmers can perhaps ensure that the grazing isn’t too intense, that the crop isn’t over extended, but when the market is hot then more and more people will try to make a buck, the danger is that the market will be unsustainable. When you are relying on a plant which is having to grow wild the risk of species extinction becomes even greater because no one will have a true picture, or necessarily care that there are less and less plants available. This happened after the Romans had taken over the Greek colony and is unsurprising as the demand for products in Rome was much higher than that of the Greek empire. When Rome hungered the world was it’s larder.
In addition to its culinary usefulness there was a need for it as a medicine too. It could be used for the digestion, as a treatment for coughs and colds, said to be a reliever of pain and a reducer of fevers, an aphrodisiac too, but there was another market for this wonder drug. If you were a fertile female living in the period there was one thing which was a very real risk, and that was death through childbirth. The concept of controlling when you had children was an important one. It meant that you had control of your body, you decided when you were willing to take the risk of carrying a child to term, and also when the household could support another child financially. Silphium was known to be excellent as a morning after pill and also as an abortifacient. Any woman who had access to it had a way to control her life that had important ramifications healthwise and economically.
This last aspect of the plant’s use has given rise to an idea about one of the symbols we use for love. The seed of the plant as depicted on coins has a remarkable resemblance to the symbol we use for love. The “heart” every young girl draws in her exercise books looks nothing like the organ that pumps blood around our body. So, perhaps, the symbol its roots more in the management of lovemaking than it’s more poetic elements. Its role as an aphrodisiac would also lend weight to the argument.
As to the legacy of this now long disappeared plant the disappearance of a species from the planet is just one of the things which can be bemoaned. History tells us that with the extinction the fortunes of Cyrene plummeted and so an important trading post was lost. Pliny tells us that the last known stalk of the plant was presented to the Emperor Nero as a curiosity. That a preserver of life and enabler of women could be reduced to a mere curiosity is as much a tragedy as the greed which destroyed the plants.
As a final lesson perhaps we should look at one final myth. The titan Prometheus, creator of mankind, stole fire from Olympus carrying a burning ember in a stalk of giant fennel. For the crime of giving humanity the ability to develop and become civilized he was bound to a rock and had his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. What if greed for flavoured meat hadn’t destroyed the Silphium trade? Would women have been more equal, and their right to choose what happens to their bodies be more readily accepted today?
© Peter C. Simms and The Garden of Gods and Monsters, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter C. Simms and The Garden of Gods and Monsters with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.