Have you ever wondered about the longevity secrets of ancient civilizations? Well, a miracle plant called silphium makes for one such story. For six centuries, silphium (also referred to as laser or laserpicium) was regarded as a special gift from nature. It was known to resolve any kind of disease or ailment. (1) Worth its weight in silver, it was hoarded by Julius Caesar and last eaten by Nero, before being driven into extinction more than 2,000 years ago.
Why are we curious about this miracle plant?
The story goes that this miracle plant made its appearance after a black-pitched rain in a place called Cyrene (in present-day Libya). It grew within an extremely narrow band of land along the coastline – approximately 125 miles (201km) long and 35 miles (40km) wide – and only in the wild.
It made the area of Cyrene wealthy and then, from all accounts, became the first recorded plant to go extinct.
Silphium has long held the interest of scholars, some of whom still search for it. Recently, news broke that it had been found in Turkey, but that’s a matter of debate – and one unlikely to be resolved soon. There’s no organic material from the original plant for comparison, despite many excavations in the area.
The question still remains as to what happened to this miracle plant and whether it managed to survive all this time.
The Silphium Plant
The Greeks and Romans used the entire plant. They ate the roots fresh, roasted, or boiled. It could fatten up sheep, give meat a better taste, and produce perfume. They regarded the sap that oozed from its stalk as a potent medicine.
Images of the plant exist on coins, vases, and other ornaments. It was most fully described by Theophrastus, the most important and influential botanist of his time. He described it as having a great thick root, a stalk-like ferula (a group of aromatic plants including carrots, fennel, parsley, and celery) in thickness, and leaves like celery. The stalk, he said, would last a year.
Pliny the Elder called it a ‘wild and rebellious plant’ because it refused all attempts at cultivation.
Can we find any evidence of it today?
Professor Mahmut Miski has recently discovered what he believes is silphium or a very close relative: F. drudeana. Besides the close resemblance of both plants to various descriptions and ancient images of silphium, there are other similarities.
Miski has shown that F. drudeana is difficult to cultivate from seed and takes roughly eight to 10 years to mature, leading him to conclude that this plant is monocarpic in nature. This means that once the plant forms a fruiting body, it starts dying, taking about a year for the stalk to die completely. This is what he believes Theophrastus referred to when he spoke about the stalk lasting a year.
According to Miski, the plant’s slow growth and potentially monocarpic nature may have been critical factors leading to its extinction in the region.
Silphium’s Medicinal Value
According to ancient texts, the plant’s medicinal value was in the juice. This “juice” was, in fact, a gum-resin, obtained by cutting either the root or the stem.
Many ancient writers described silphium’s medicinal uses and properties. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, described its effects on pleurisy, liver disease, typhus, fevers, pneumonia, and haemorrhoids. He also wrote about its use to expel a stillbirth, provoke menstruation, and even prevent conception. (3,4)
Pedanius Dioscorides – a Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist who served under Nero – is most famous for his writing of De materia medica. This was an important source of information on herbs, plants, and animal medicine used by the Greeks, Romans and other cultures for the next 16 centuries. He described even more medicinal uses: healing bruises; relief from sciatica, toothaches, wounds, poisonous bites, jaundice, colic, and menstrual problems; improving eyesight and lung tissues; and even helping someone sober up after drinking too much.
The compounds in this miracle plant aided all sorts of health issues
Claudius Galen, a Greek regarded as one of the most important physicians of his time, was responsible for many advances in the understanding of human physiology, anatomy, and therapeutics. One of his most important contributions was the dosing of medicines, which he initiated nearly 2,000 years ago. His writings also shed light on the many medicinal uses of silphium during his time. Besides noting its remarkable healing properties, he mentioned its use in sciatica, stomach issues, ear pain, dental problems… and for those who happen to swallow fresh bull’s blood! (3)
Taking into account all the various references to silphium and its medicinal properties, it would seem that the compounds in the plant helped with inflammation, mycobacterial infections, and the immune system; reducing tumor growths; acting as an aphrodisiac; dealing with menstrual issues; protecting the heart and more.
And in one area, silphium filled the desires of both the men and women. For men, it was the ancient version of Viagra, improving libido and erectile dysfunction. In women, it acted as a contraceptive and a substance that induced abortions.
What drove silphium to extinction?
There’s plenty of speculation, but no one knows for sure. A changing climate and soil conditions are mentioned as possible factors, but human intervention is more plausible.
Initially, the Greeks closely controlled the harvesting of the miracle plant, who put regulations in place to ensure nobody overharvested it. The Romans, on the other hand, ignored these regulations and exploited them to keep up with demand. The plant only grew in the wild; it would not grow easily from seed; and, if Miski is correct, it grew quite slowly (2). All of this, combined with its incredible usefulness, made it vulnerable to being wiped out by an all-too-human focus on short-term gain.
Of course, we’ll never know for sure. Even the plant itself, in the absence of the finding of organic matter, remains an enigma.