A Brief History of Foods: The Mysterious Silphium
Updated: May 5
Silphium may have looked unimpressive, with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers, but it was much prized in the ancient world. A gift from the god Apollo, or so legend would have it, Silphium was used widely by most ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians and Minoans even had a specific glyph to represent the plant, and the Romans extolled its virtues in literature and poems.
Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, but the most valuable product was actually the plant's sap. Tapped from the root of this fennel-like plant and dried, in Roman haute cuisine the resin was used as a seasoning, as a condiment, or grated liberally over dishes. The stem was also considered a delicacy for those who could get it. These crunchy stalks were roasted, sautéed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Even its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar.
The wonder plant was an excellent preservative for lentils and when fed to sheep, it was said their flesh became delectably tender. Even in medicine, Silphium was a veritable panacea. It could treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies . It was also thought to be both an aphrodisiac and, perhaps conveniently, a contraceptive. All of this from a weed that grew wild in a region of North Africa known as Cyrenaica.
Underlying geography North Africa is hardly famed for its lush vegetation, so just how did Silphium survive. It turns out that geography is key. The limestone slopes of Jebel Akhdar lie between the coastal plain of the Mediterranean and the arid desert of the Sahara, and provide an abundant water supply. Parts are known to receive up to 850 mm (34 in) of rain per year, which is nearly as wet as Britain. Jebel Akhdar and its adjacent coast form part of the Mediterranean woodlands and forests ecoregion, The Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and relatively mild and rainy winters can, therefore, support communities of plants including forest, woodland, maquis (densely growing evergreen shrubs), garrigue (broadly similar to maquis, but less densely vegetated), steppe and oak savanna. From ancient times to the present day, areas of red soil (Terra rosssa) found on the Marj Plain produce abundant crops of wheat and barley. Plenty of springs issue on the highlands. Wild olive trees are abundant, and large areas of oak savanna provide pasture to the flocks and herds of the local Bedouins. Historically large areas were covered in forest, but the forested area of the Jebel Akhdar have been shrinking in recent decades. So, Cyrenaica provided the perfect opportunity for Silphium to spread its broad roots ever further, growing luxuriantly on lush hillsides and forest meadows.
History The Berbers were the earliest recorded inhabitants of Cyrenaica until, beginning in the 7th-century BC, the region was colonized by the Greeks and became known as Kyrenaika. As with most things in the ancient Mediterranean world, Cyrenaica was annexed by the Romans in 96 BC. Almost immediately, Silphium stocks began to decline at an alarming rate. Try as they might, neither the Greeks or the Romans could work out how to farm the plant in captivity. Instead Silphium was collected from the wild and although strict rules governed how much could be harvested, these rules were largely ignored to supply a thriving, voracious black market.
Mismanagement and over-tapping led to Silphium's catastrophic decline in the first century BC. Eventually the plant become extinct in the 1st-century AD. Indeed, in the 70s AD, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) writes that while Silphium was "worth its weight in silver"., but that "for many years now it had not been seen in the region...The single stem found within living memory was sent to the Emperor Nero" . Although we cannot be entirely certain, presumably the bon viveur Nero consumed the last Silphium, and that was that. The Romans were, however, fortunate in finding an alternative aromatic resin from central Asia now known as asafoetida .
Extinct? Despite its much prized status, Silphium was never cultivated. Inevitably the economics of supply and demand sealed the plant's fate. As the Silphium’s value increased, unscrupulous smugglers may have taken the lot. Today, as far as we know, Silphium has vanished; driven to extinction by over-harvesting and over-grazing. Yet questions remain whether it has just disappeared from the region of ancient Cyrenaica or from our planet altogether remains.
Efforts to identify this mysterious plant have had to rely on just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists. Thus, today, scientists think that, like its replacement asafoetida, Silphium may have belonged to a group of fennel-like plants, the Ferula. Such plants are actually related to carrots and grow wild as weeds across North Africa and the Mediterranean. Significantly, two of these plants - giant Tangier fennel (Ferula tingitana) and giant fennel (Margotia gummifera) - still exist in Libya today .
With only a handful of studies on the plant diversity in Libya, it has led some to wonder whether Silphium may still be there, hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed . The problem, of course, is that no one knows exactly what they are looking for.
1. Wikipedia, "Silphium", retrieved January 22nd, 2021.
2. Dalby, A. (2003), Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, Routledge, London, p. 303.
3. Asafoetida was used as a cheaper substitute for silphium, but had similar enough qualities that Romans, including the geographer Strabo, used the same word to describe both.
4. Gorvett, Z. (2017), The mystery of the lost Roman herb, BBC Future, retrieved January 19th, 2021.