As the legend goes, one of the most fundamental herbs in prehistory was discovered after a “black rain” swept across North Africa, more than 2500 years ago. At the height of its popularity, the plant “siliphium” was literally worth its weight in gold.
Nowadays, siliphium is a mystery. Scientists are unsure if the plant is extinct, or whether it is currently known by another name. Regardless, Greek scholars reported on the innumerable applications of this miracle plant, and its prominence in ancient culture is indisputable.
Prominent Roman author, Pliny the Elder, detailed 39 uses for siliphium, calling it “among the most precious gifts presented to us by Nature”. From sap to roots, every part of the plant was utilized in cuisine and medicine. Its juices healed wounds and neutralized poisonings. It was prescribed for recovering patients, convulsions, asthma, digestive problems, plus dozens of other indications. The resin of siliphium, known as “laser”, was the most potent and powerful component of the herb.
There is evidence that the heart shape originated from the little seed pods of siliphium. Moreover, siliphium was both romantic in notion and practice. “Anecdotal and medical evidence from classical antiquity tells us that the drug of choice for contraception was silphium,” wrote historian John Riddle. Juices of siliphium were taken as an aphrodisiac and then applied to “purge the uterus”.
Ancient texts describe luscious fields of siliphium covering poetic hillsides in the ancient city of Cyrene— near modern-day Shahhat, Libya. However, at the time that Pliny wrote about siliphium, only one remaining stalk was known to exist and given to Emperor Nero in approximately 54-68AD. Modern botanists suggest siliphium is similar to fennel. Some believe it still exists in Mediterranean regions.
Siliphium was only ever known to grow in Cyrene, and the climate of North Africa has changed dramatically since prehistory. Most interestingly, as the story goes, siliphium could not be farmed, perhaps because of its finicky seeds. Whether siliphium was driven to extinction or is simply laying in wait, its mystery is still alive today, with many enthusiasts wondering: how can we get it back?