With a panorama brightened by vivid colours and infused with fragrant scents of ocean and mountains, the traditional Mediterranean area supplied a sensational feast for the senses. Lots of the historic crops that the varied historical civilizations on this area gathered for meals, drugs, and faith stay in use right this moment. But, the story of a few of these historic crops, for numerous causes, ended too quickly. As a consequence of extinction or botanical mysteries, there are a number of historic crops that we are able to now not embody in our collective materia medica. These historic crops embody silphium (Silphion Gr.), moly, and plany plant, identified by the traditional civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. By exploring the makes use of of those three crops in antiquity, we are able to honor their reminiscence and their once-celebrated items.

The Lure of Silphium

“You ask, my Lesbia, what number of of your kisses are sufficient and greater than sufficient for me. As large a quantity because the Libyan grains of sand that lie at silphium-producing Cyrene…” – Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE), Carmen 7

Silphium (Silphion Gr.), regarded as extinct, was a extremely treasured medicinal plant all through the traditional Mediterranean area. This surprise herb reportedly grew solely wild and was discovered abundantly in Cyrene, an historical Greek metropolis spanning components of modern-day Libya and northern Africa. The traditional Greeks populated the town for six centuries, spanning three main intervals of Greek historical past−Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic, from 631 BCE till 96 BCE. Throughout the next two centuries, the traditional Roman empire expanded and dominated the realm. Each cultures left an indelible mark on the area’s historical past; sacred temples honoring mythological gods can nonetheless be visited right this moment. Throughout this lengthy stretch of time, marked by shifts in literacy, drugs, and artwork, the financial system in Cyrene prospered as a result of more and more common silphium plant; proof is present in historical silver cash that bear the plant’s picture. Due to its restricted geographic distribution, the plant was extraordinarily costly−harvested and shipped at nice price throughout land and sea−and but remained common and extremely wanted amongst many love-thirsty folks.

In historical Greece, silphium was revered as a present from Apollo, the Greek god of therapeutic, music, and the solar. The early Minoan civilization on Crete and the traditional Egyptians had a particular glyph, or distinctive image, that represented silphium (Hogan, 2007). The traditional Egyptians used the plant’s gum-resin to safe bandages across the deceased throughout the mummification course of. The traditional Romans valued silphium’s weight in silver cash and Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) supposedly stored 1,500 kilos of the plant’s resin within the Roman treasury. His inheritor and great-nephew emperor Caesar Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE) would later mandate that each one shares of silphium be despatched to Rome (Zong, 2018). Silphium was sung about in love songs and poems, together with these by Catullus (84-54 BCE), the famed Latin poet who influenced the works of Virgil (70-19 BCE) and Ovid (43 BCE – 18 CE). His poem Carmen 7 (above) references “silphium-producing Cyrene” amid his try to explain the vastness of his adoration for his lover (Catullus, ca. 44 BCE/2004). 

Silphium’s widespread lure was primarily attributable to its aphrodisiac, oral contraceptive, and abortifacient properties. The plant’s resin, known as laser, laserpicium, or lasarpicium, “could have been the traditional world’s simplest antifertility drug” (Riddle & Estes, 1992, p. 226). This widespread use mirrored each a love-crazed inhabitants and the following want for inhabitants management, significantly among the many historical Greeks, whose largest proponents of inhabitants management had been statesmen and philosophers, together with Plato and Aristotle, intent on managing each restricted pure sources and the protection of the populace (Holzwarth, 2020). Many historical writers, together with Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Theophrastus (c. 370 – c. 287 BCE), Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Dioscorides (40-90 CE), and Galen (129-210 CE), talk about the deserves of silphium of their surviving texts, spanning centuries. Within the Hippocratic Corpus, a set of texts associated to the teachings of Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), silphium was an ingredient in a recipe to expel a stillbirth (Totelin, 2015). In historical Rome, the really useful dosage was an quantity corresponding to the dimensions of a chick-pea taken in two glasses of water taken month-to-month to impress menstruation, forestall conception, and dissolve any already current implantation (Soranus, of Ephesus, ca. 120/1991).

Along with antifertility purposes, silphium was thought-about a “cure-all” for a wide range of well being issues (Richardson, 1999). It was common for alleviating digestive illnesses, as a topical muscle and wound salve, and for complications, cough, and sore throat. Hippocrates really useful it as a purgative, febrifuge, and poultice, and the plant was famous to have the same windy impact like garlic, in that its aroma might journey out from the physique. Riddle and Estes (1992) recommend that there could have been different purposes, however due to “the hidden nature of feminine tradition”(p. 226) in antiquity, we can not know extra in regards to the plant nor about ladies’s experiences with it, akin to the best way to put together the herb, the optimum dose, and finest time to take it throughout their menstrual cycle. Theophrastus gives a touch of how the resin, or “juice,” was harvested: “They’ve rules…for reducing the basis, in accordance with which they repair rigorously the right quantity to be reduce, having regard to earlier cuttings and the provision of plant. For it isn’t allowed to chop it improper nor to chop greater than the appointed quantity; for, if the juice is stored and never used, it goes unhealthy and decays” (Hort, 2019, 3.2-3.4).

Silphium was additionally a well-liked ingredient in delicacies. Its leaves and stalk, chopped or grated, had been added to many dishes. Based on Dioscorides, it “tastes good blended with sauces and salt” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 475, 479), and its leaves will be eaten as a salad with lettuce. The celebrated Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria of Apicius included an oxygarum sauce recipe with ½ oz. pepper, Three scruples silphium, 6 scruples cardamom, 6 scruples cumin, and 6 scruples of mint (a scruple was equal to roughly 1.5 grams). The elements are crushed and blended with honey to kind a paste, and “when this work is finished or everytime you need, add broth and vinegar to style” (Hill, 1936, p. 57). Silphium was so well-known and loved that Aristophanes (446-386 BCE), the Greek comedic playwright, jokingly calls for in his play, Birds: “Hand me the grater, convey the silphium you, now then, the cheese” (Rogers, 1924, p. 275).

There are extra makes use of of silphium, together with as an ingredient in perfumes, however as Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) mentioned, itemizing the makes use of of silphium can be “an countless job to document” (Pliny the Elder, 77/1952, p. 369).

“Ferula drudeana Korov. (Ферула Друде), Moscow College Herbarium” – Ferula drudeana Korovin collected in Turkey by Moscow State College (copyright is managed by Dr. Alexey P. Seregin) (licensed underneath http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

The Botany of Silphium

Silphium is believed to have been a sort of large fennel within the genus Ferula and within the household Apiaceae, shared by carrot, celery, and parsley. Theophrastus describes silphium as having thick roots coated in black bark with a hole stalk, just like fennel, and golden leaves, like celery (Hort, 2019). Essentially the most useful a part of the plant was the collected resin of the stalk and root, the supply of antiquity’s aphrodisiac and antifertility drug. Why silphium grew solely in Cyrene could also be as a result of area’s wealthy, fertile soil or for different causes unclear. In an insightful lately accomplished research by Mahmut Miski (2021), a uncommon and endemic species of Ferula rising close to Central Anatolia was recognized as a doable match to silphium. The plant, F. drudeana, exhibited related botanical and organic actions with its historical ancestor, extra so than another Ferula species beforehand studied. The research additionally made promising headway to elucidate its doable extinction: gradual progress to maturity and a brief life span. Silphium was seemingly a monocarpic plant, that means that the plant flowers, seeds, after which dies.

In historic crops of the identical genus, the substance ferujol has been recognized and early research have indicated its effectiveness in stopping pregnancies (Kolata, 1994; Riddle & Estes, 1992). Silphium’s composition has additionally been in comparison with different abortifacients utilized in antiquity, together with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus catora L.), and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium L.) (Riddle & Estes, 1992). Maybe not surprisingly given its affiliation with intercourse, the seeds of the silphium plant had been heart-shaped, as depicted in historical photos. This will have been the origin of how we got here to affiliate the form of the center with romance. Botanically, the fruit of silphium was seemingly schizocarp; when mature, the fruit splits into what is named a mericarp, a carpel with one seed. Whereas rigorously analyzing overlapping mericarps in F. drudeana, the writer confirmed the form of our beloved coronary heart image.  

The Finish of Silphium?

Inside the reminiscence of the current technology, a single stalk is all that has ever been discovered there, and that was despatched as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero.” – Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), Pure Historical past 19.15 (ca. 77/1950)

Since earlier than medieval occasions, students from throughout Europe have tried to resolve the mysterious disappearance of silphium (Keller, 2014). They’ve provided a number of theories for its extinction primarily based on historical commentary and fashionable scholarship: overgrazing by livestock (as instructed by Pliny the Elder), overharvesting to fulfill excessive calls for, desertification of the soil, destruction from an earthquake, or human destruction from revolt (Gemmill, 1966). In antiquity, there had been a number of makes an attempt made by farmers in Greece and Syria to domesticate the plant for simpler and extra reasonably priced entry, however the plant wouldn’t prosper anyplace however Cyrene (Potter, 2012; Riddle & Estes, 1992).

Throughout and after its demise, a substitute plant, asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida L.), turned broadly used as a replacement, with related natural purposes as silphium. Asafoetida was listed within the U.S. pharmacopeia in 1916 and medical makes use of have been cited by physicians in Egypt, India, and China within the fashionable age (Gemmill, 1966). Like silphium, asafoetida belongs to the Apiacea household, however in accordance with Dioscorides, it was “weaker in energy” and had “a extra toxic odor” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 475). As silphium’s substitute, it was most frequently utilized in culinary recipes and never as an efficient love-drug. Asafoetida continues to be a typical ingredient in lots of Indian recipes and as a substitute ingredient for onion and garlic.  It’s unlucky that silphium, hailed as “one of the valuable items of nature” (Pliny, 77/1950, p. 179), has been lacking for greater than 2,000 years. There are, nevertheless, promising outcomes from Miski’s latest research of F. drudeana. Maybe there may be nonetheless hope for its inexperienced resurgence.

Different Lacking Historic Vegetation 

Whereas extinction is one motive that we could have misplaced prized historic crops, another excuse is the issue in appropriately figuring out crops written about in antiquity. Even right this moment, there are herbs from the traditional world, together with the mythological world, that we now have but to determine with absolute certainty.



Within the epic poem The Odyssey, written by Homer within the 8th or 7th century BCE, the sorceress Circe makes use of a particular drug or pharmakon to remodel a bunch of males into swine. To flee the identical destiny, Odysseus is given the plant moly from Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. Moly was thought-about an natural antidote towards Circe’s witchcraft, and within the story, it provides Odysseus the safety he wants. 

In antiquity, moly was typically described with mystical qualities: “The foundation was black, whereas the flower was as white as milk; the gods name it Moly, and mortal males can not uproot it, however the gods can do no matter they like” (Homer, ca. 750 BCE/1900, 10.302). In his natural textbook De Materia Medica, Dioscorides recommends the herb “(reduce up by the basis and carried across the physique) is sweet towards poisoning and bewitching.” Botanically, the plant had “flowers just like white violets, a milky color” and “a white stalk of 4 toes, on the highest of which stands one thing just like garlic” with a root in “the form of a scallion” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 428). 

Students have tried to determine historic crops primarily based on the descriptions in these literary and natural texts. Early students had instructed that the plant was a sort of Allium species, a wild garlic (Stannard, 1962). However many fashionable scientists recommend that this ‘holy moly’ was snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis L.), which is native to the Mediterranean. Snowdrop accommodates galantamine alkaloid, a phytochemical that acts as an antidote to chemical compounds that induce a delusional state. In the present day, galantamine is the therapy for anticholinergic poisoning from tropane alkaloids and for Alzheimer’s illness (Plaitakis & Duvoisin, 1983; Tesseromatis, 2020). The phrase ‘moly’ is traced to the traditional Greek phrase μωλύω, that means “to loosen up,” maybe in reference to its actions on the nervous system (Tesseromatis, 2020).

Whereas our historic sources stay muted, we are able to actually modify the fantastical tales of historical Greece to our fashionable wants for drugs. 

yellow sweet clover in the wild

Yellow Candy Clover (Melilot officinalis)

Plany Plant

Referred to as psalakantha in historical Greek, the plany plant was featured within the delusion of Psalakantha, a nymph on the Aegean island of Ikaria. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and celebration, had fallen in love together with her pal Ariadne and sought Psalakantha’s assist in wooing her. Psalakantha, nevertheless, was in love with the god herself, and agreed to assist him provided that he fulfilled her wishes. However Dionysus refused, and in his anger at Psalakantha’s refusal to assist him, he reworked her into the plany plant. The theme of a feminine character was a plant is frequent in Greek delusion and demonstrates the grand creativeness of the traditional Greeks to personify nature and attribute that means to many native species. Subsequently, the plany plant was woven into garlands and worn at festivals sacred to Dionysus. The traditional Egyptians additionally attributed that means to the plant; they wove the garlands to embellish their horses in hopes of well being and victory (Atsma, 2017). 

Botanically, the plany plant was described as an herbaceous perennial with silvery inexperienced leaves and pale-yellow flowers. In historical texts, it was in comparison with absinth wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and yellow candy clover (Melilot officinalis). Sadly, there usually are not many descriptions of the plant in lots of historical texts, making it troublesome for students to precisely determine it right this moment.

In Closing,

It’s nothing wanting miraculous that nature continues to offer us together with her abundance of magnificence and sustenance after so a few years of life on this planet. By exploring the proof of historic crops like silphium, moly, and plany plant, we are able to maintain alive the reminiscences of our lacking plant allies. It’s these historic crops that may remind us of our natural inheritance, the importance of traditions, and the earth’s items to herbalists then and now.

For extra posts on historic crops and historical natural knowledge, see:

De Materia Medica: The Ancient Text That Changed the World
Botany Beginnings: Who Was Theophrastus

The Herbs That Got Away: Rediscovering Silphium and Other Missing Historical Plants | Herbal Academy | By exploring the uses of these three historical plants in antiquity, we can honor their memory and their once-celebrated gifts.


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