Is holy grail for botanists—miracle herb silphium—extinct?

Roman Forum

Imagine an herb so sought-after it was stored in a country’s treasury as though it was gold. Silphium was once in high demand. Now no one can find it although its value once made a city in what is now Shahhat, Libya the richest in Africa, according to an article posted at the BBC. What led to its demise? Why couldn’t ancient communities just cultivate it? What might we do if we were able to resurrect it today?

Herbs in containers
Herbs can be grown in containers year round in North Florida. (Photo: Indie Art South)

Romans were crazy for silphium. You could eat it, use it as a contraceptive (or aphrodisiac), and use it for various other medicaments. You could even feed it to sheep, and the result was a lovely tenderness to the meat once it was cooked. Demand became so extreme, silphium began to hold special status much like some of our threatened or endangered species do today. Writing for the BBC, Zaria Gorvett said:

“Either way, the ancient lust for true silphium proved too much. Pliny the Elder wrote that Roman landlords had been forced to fence off the herb’s meadow habitat to stop local sheep from devouring the whole lot…Eventually the locals rebelled, tearing the fences down to increase the value of their flock; silphium-fed sheep were the ancient equivalent of Wagyu beef. Amid rising tensions, sometimes they’d break in just to sabotage them.”

The BBC article was written in 2017. I bumped into it quite by accident. I’m an enthusiastic herbalist, largely due to upbringing and heritage. Older women in the rural American South knew how to make good use of plants that grew in the wild or those that could be cultivated. I was actually reading an article on archaeology when the article on silphium came up in a recommended link. It fascinates me.

Many herbs we can access today have multiple uses. Lemon Balm is one of my favorites for its use as an anti-viral and as a great addition to a cup of hot tea with raw honey. There’s enough scientific evidence to suggest ancient healers knew what they were doing when they proffered lemon balm as a remedy for viruses.

The species of silphium Romans enjoyed so much is believed to be extinct. No one really knows exactly why, but if it was what I call a finicky herb and it needed specific soil and climate conditions, over-grazing may have played a role.

I recall my grandmother using herbal and folk concoctions for various ailments. She’s one reason I can’t imagine not having an herb garden. The other reason is that I love cooking with fresh herbs—there really is a difference in the taste.

Silphium appears to be a holy grail for botanists seeking plants no longer believed to be extant. It would be great if someone actually found some.

If you’re interested in botanical mysteries, you’ll definitely enjoy Gorvett’s article on Silphium.

Featured Photo and Caption: (From US Library of Congress); (1902) Grand view of the great forum of ancient Rome from the capitoline tower, Rome, Italy. Italy, 1902. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2020683448/.

(Kay B. Day/February 8, 2021)

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