The Mystery of Silphium, the Lost Miracle plant!

Imagine that scientists announced tomorrow that they had found a plant that could cure cancer, worked like Viagra, provided safe contraception, stopped common colds, and tasted better than chocolate. Imagine if they then told you that they’d mysteriously lost it. Sounds a bit crazy but that is exactly what happened around 2000 years ago and there are plenty of records to prove it.

The silphium plant was first discovered by the Theraeans around 630BC in a part of North Africa called Barka where Libya is today. According to the legend the local natives led them to a place where there was ‘a hole in the sky’ and a wonderful natural spring – the kyri. The Greeks established their new city colony and named it Kyrenia. (Today known as Shahat)

Spring of Kyra - City of Silphium
Spring of Kyra – City of Silphium (Image credit: Libyan Studies / WMC)

It was a beautiful location surrounded by steep hills that were unusually green and fertile. One day dark storm clouds filled the’ hole in the sky’ and there was a downpour of black rain. Soon after this the people of Kyrenia noticed a strange plant growing on the hillsides. At first nobody took much notice and soon it spread for miles but only ever grew in an area roughly 120 miles by 40miles. Soon after the people of Kyrenia discovered just how extraordinary this plant actual was. They saw it as a gift from the God Apollo and adopted it as their symbol. They called it Silphium.

The white sap from the stem could be turned into spice by mixing it with fine meal. As a spice it was delicious and unparalleled in flavour. Men who ate food prepared with the herb quickly found that it was also a potent aphrodisiac and women who used it found that it worked as a contraceptive. In larger doses it was also the ancient equivalent of the morning after pill.

As early as 1840, British botanists were sending expeditions to see if they could rediscover the plant also known as Laser. According to Aristobulus, only pines and silphium grew in the region and sheep that fed on the herb were delightful to eat. Sheep themselves craved the plant and would become agitated and run to it wherever it grew. Only a precious few sheep were allowed this delicacy and the main flocks were deliberately kept far from where it grew.

According to records from the time it was a natural antibiotic and amazingly effective against dog bites and other forms of septicaemia. Those that had coughs and sore throats used a syrup made from the plant to achieve an almost instantaneous cure. It was used to treat scorpion and snakebites as well as being used as a cure for the most serious of maladies. Modern researchers speculate that this was indeed cancers.

Silphium Coins
Silphium Coins (CC) Wikimedia ArchaiOptix

If this weren’t enough, a wonderful perfume could be made from the flowers and the heart-shaped seeds could be taken as love pills. Many researchers believe that the modern ‘lovers’ heart’ shape we use for Valentine’s day came directly from the outline of the Silphium seed. It soon became one of the most precious commodities of the ancient world worth its weight in gold and silver. Those who traded in it grew rich, for the whole of the ancient world craved it. It was depicted on coins and vases. The romans wrote songs and poetry about it. They called it the ‘Darling Herb’ and valued it so much that Julius Caesar had around 680 kilograms stored in his treasury.

Export of Silphium Taken from Bowl Design
Export of Silphium Taken from Bowl Design (CC) Welcome Collection Images: King Arcesilas of Cyrenaica overseeing the packaging of silphium (the country’s main source of income) into ships for export. Gouache painting after a Spartan cylix, c. 580-550 B.C.

What made it even more precious is that it could only be grown in the region around Kyrenia (Cyrene). Ever attempt to grow it anywhere else failed. Records tell of countless attempts to transport and cultivate it in other regions – some quite close by – without success. Try as they might, neither the Romans nor the Greeks could figure out how to cultivate it in captivity. Silphium could only be collected from the wild. To protect it the Greeks introduced draconian laws about how much could be harvested. Thieves who were caught trying to steal it were executed and traders desperately tried to find ways to bulk it out with other substances to make it go further. The Egyptians valued it so much they even created a specific symbol to represent it in their writings.

Cyrene had become rich on the profits from Silphium and honoured the plant by having its design stamped onto all of its coinage. The wealth of Cyrene was a magnet for the powerful and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 322BC. The region subsequently became part of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt who took control of the plant. By the time that Rome conquered Egypt and its vassal territories, Silphium was valuable beyond measure. Julius Caesar stockpiled over half a ton for his personal use and kept it in a vault in Rome. By 61AD, it had vanished. Legend has it that the last rooting plant was sent to Emperor Nero as a curiosity. In keeping with his reputation for callous debauchery, he promptly ate the plant.

Without the wealth of Silphium, Cyrene fell into decline and was eventually overrun by nomadic tribes. The last mention of a living Silphium plant was in by Synesis, the Bishop of Barka (Cyrene) who records that he sent a specimen of the plant to a friend for examination some time between 400 & 431 AD.

Silphium City of Cyrene
The Silphium City of Cyrene with the Hills where the Plant Once Grew (CC) WMC Maher27777

It’s commonly believed by historians that the Silphium plant was legally and illegally overharvested and eventually went extinct. According to others, the plant disappeared almost as fast as it had arrived. It simply stopped growing. Some researchers point to climate change while others suggest it was hybrid that evolved into something else. The truth is that nobody really knows. Some botanists believe it may still be out there hidden in plain sight.

Could be recognise it today? Theophrastus described the plants as having thick roots covered in black bark. They were extravagantly long; if you were to hold one up against the human body, it would be around the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Records show it exuded a milky sap and was eaten by animals without any negative effects. Coins and picture show that it had similarities to the asafoetida plant and yellow flowers. Apparently, The French Geographical Society offered a prize in 1800AD for anyone who could find a single living Silphium plant. The prize has never been claimed. Over harvesting, climate change, nomadic raiders, changes in genetics and uncontrollable sheep have all be proposed as the reasons that the miracle herb vanished.

There are others who suggest a more paranormal reason. They point out that the plant only appeared after a mysterious black rain and ask is it possible that this was something of extra-terrestrial origin that fertilised the soil and stimulated a dormant plant or even a mutation to grow. Then, as the fertiliser wore off over the centuries the plant reverted to its original form. There is no doubt that the plant was of earthly origin but did meteor dust or something else create the black rain that started the whole mystery. Finally, they ask, why was it called the ‘area with a hole in the sky’? Did they just mean that it rained a lot or were they being more literal and describing something else that is long gone today?

Whatever happened it seems that there really was once an elixir that tasted great and could cure any disease. What a tragedy that we’ve lost it.

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