Wednesday, July 5, 2017

SearchResearch Challenge (7/5/2017): An important plant that's now extinct?

In my reading... 

... I, like you, often run across things that I really need to look up.  But this thing-I-had-to-Look-Up really got my attention because it seems so... improbable.  

The article I was reading was set in Ancient Rome, and described a mysterious plant as something so valuable that it was depicted on ancient coins as an emblem of wealth.  

It was valuable partly because it was used as both a medicine AND as regular kind of seasoning. I also be that part of the reason it was so valuable is that it was fairly rare.  (But I'm guessing.)    

Yet, remarkably, this plant somehow vanished--it seems to have totally disappeared from the earth.  What?  It's a plant... wouldn't some enterprising farmer have figured out a way to grow it (and earn millions of denarii in the process)?  

(I have no idea what the mystery plant looks like, so I went with a generic plant background.)  

We know it was used all around the Mediterranean, and yet somehow, it slipped from our collective horticultural fingers.  

Can you solve this 2000 year old cold-case?  

1.  What was this plant?  How is it possible that we no longer grow it? 
2.  And if you wanted to simulate the flavor of this mystery plant in your food today, what spice would you use?  (Assuming you can find a substitute spice...)  

This is such an odd story that this week we'll have just these two Challenges. 

So... what is it? 

When you figure it out, be sure to let us know HOW you were able to uncover the millennia of mystery and determine what it is (or, rather, was).  

Search on!  

P.S.  I know I didn't post an Answer to last week's Challenge.  Sorry about that.  I forgot that I would be travelling during the early part of this week. I'll post the Answer tomorrow (Thursday, July 6) in the afternoon after I get back home.  


  1. Silphium! Interesting. I found this information by googling 'extinct ancient spice' and seeing a few pages with that term. A wikipedia link proved the most immediately helpful. I think there's definitely room for more detective work on this one. Some interesting competing and speculative theories around it.

  2. I Googled ancient roman plant now dead

    This told me that the name of the plant was silphium.

    A search for silphium produced multiple results:

    I then decided to search our library databases and found an article from Time magazine with the following information:

    History teaches us the folly of destroying species that could benefit humanity. John Riddle, a classics scholar at North Carolina State University, has written about a female contraceptive used by the ancient Greeks and Romans and reputed to be safe and effective. Known as silphion to the Greeks and silphium to the Romans, it was the economic staple of the Greek city-state of Cyrene, which apparently encompassed most of the plant's natural habitat. The plant was mentioned in the writings of Pliny, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and even in a play by Aristophanes. Highly prized, it was worth more than its weight in silver and was portrayed on Cyrenian coins.

    Riddle and his colleagues have reported that experiments on lab rats with common fennel (a close relative of silphium's) did indeed show contraceptive activity. Unfortunately, they were unable to test the efficacy of silphium itself. Because of the insatiable demand for it in the ancient world, silphium went extinct about 1,500 years ago.

    NATURE'S GIFTS: THE HIDDEN MEDICINE CHEST. By: Plotkin, Mark J., Time, 0040781X, Spring2000 Special Issue, Vol. 155, Issue 17

    I also searched WorldCat and found an extensive article about silphium in Economic Botany. Here is the abstract:

    The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant. Economic Botany 53(2): 133–143, 1999. Ancient texts provide an extensive list of purported medicinal benefits for Cyrenaic silphium but omit reference to this extinct, unidentified species o/Ferula (Umbelliferae) as an aphrodisiac. The plant may have been so regarded since ithyphallic and testicular imagery are evoked via stylized representations of the silphium plant and seed pod on the mintage of Greek Cyrenaica in North Africa. These numismatic motifs play to an imitative principle. Whether by calculation or serendipity, commodity marketing likely drew on more subliminal communications through an association between phallus-like renderings of the plant and apotropaic function and through possible association of the geography of a love philtre with a philosophical product of Cyrene, Aristippus’ uninhibited hedonism. Other circumstantial evidence draws on the writings of Avicenna, who attributed aphrodisiacal qualities to a recognized substitute for Cyrenaic silphium, and to the poetry of Catullus whose art linked silphium to carnal pleasures.

    1. It apparently grew wild and was not cultivated. The supply was somewhat limited and it seemed to have been harvested to extinction.

    2. Several articles say that it was related to fennel, so I am assuming that is the spice that you would use to try and duplicate it today.

    This took only about 15 minutes.

  3. Google Search [ extinct plant roman coin ]

    On the SERP summaries it mentions Fennel.


    I did an image search for silphium and found this page which shows what it might have looked like.

  5. My first search -- ["Ancient Rome" plant coin "emblem of wealth"] -- yielded nothing useful.

    But my second -- ["Ancient Rome" plant coin disappeared] -- was a bonanza that yielded many articles about the "mystery plant" -- Silphium.

    Wikipedia has a summary of the history the plant and its ancient uses ... and today still inconclusive search for it ... as well as a list of sources/references. ( (It's even mentioned in the 1908 Harmsworth History of the World, for example:

    1. What was this plant? How is it possible that we no longer grow it?
    Answers: Silphium. No one today is sure which exact plant ancient silphium is.

    It's thought that it was a giant fennel (genus: Ferula). But it seemed to have been endemic to the Cyrene coast in Northern Libya, where it became the source of that area's wealth, hence its use on coins. Various parts of the plant were widely used in food, medicine and contraception. Ancient attempts to grow it elsewhere apparently yielded plants that much less potency.

    "It was a versatile commodity too, as nearly every part of the plant was used, from the stalk, to the resin, to the tuber like roots. So versatile and sought-after, in fact, that it was over-cultivated and sold into extinction by the 1st century BCE. Pliny the Elder claims, in his Natural History, that the very last stalk of silphium ever harvested was given to Roman Emperor Nero as an ‘oddity’, which, according to some accounts, he promptly ate. There are those, however, who believe that it isn’t extinct, but merely misidentified." (

    Another article said that a ancient fad of raising cattle fed on silphium -- to produce the Kobe/Waygu beef of its day -- led to trampled destruction of its habitat.

    2. And if you wanted to simulate the flavor of this mystery plant in your food today, what spice would you use? (Assuming you can find a substitute spice...)

    Answer: It's impossible to be definitive, as it's identity is not exactly known. Easily available fennel seeds are possible substitutes. Others mentioned over the centuries are:

    a) Leaves, stalks and/or seeds from less potent fennels native to other Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern regions,

    b) Asafoetida -- aka “devil’s sweat” -- which is said to have an awful aroma, however (; or

    c) Ferula tingitana (Giant Tangier Fennel), which some think might even be the real thing (

    ["Silphium" today] and [Silphium substitute] gave many articles:

    Here's one fellow's recipe for a modern version of "Laser (Silphium) Stem / Root / Juice" that combines fennel, asafoetida and olive oil: (

    Best wishes,

    -- Mike

    (Request: Might the type-window for our comments be expanded far beyond the current 5 lines?)

  6. Hello Dr. Russell and everyone

    1. What was this plant? How is it possible that we no longer grow it?

    [plant medicine seasoning used in coins]

    Coin, a seasoning and as a medicine: Silfio in Spanish In Spanish version says: “En heráldica se conserva en Italia el silfio d’oro reciso di Cirenaica4 ), una planta estilizada que fue el emblema de las unidades italianas que combatieron en el Norte de África en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.” Also found a link posted below and decided to go to Italian version. In which stays: “ la pianta era un dono del dio Apollo” and links to Spice page (posted below)

    HISTORY OF SPICES: McCormick Institute

    From Wikipedia link: LASER: THIRTY-NINE REMEDIES.

    Silphion as Spice. Fromo Wikipedia Italian. Lots of information. As example: similar to Celery (is that the answer to Q2 ? )

    [silphium similar seasoning]

    Contraceptive, possibly related to parsley,

    Book Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices
    By Andrew Dalby
    Tells how they used and one theory of how and why disappeared. And says asafoetida similar

    Changing the Course of History

    [ asafoetida] [ asafoetida silfio]

    link text
    Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West
    By John M. Riddle
    How we can judge the effectiveness of an extinct plant?... Used as contraception.

    1. Noticed last part of previous post has mistakes, so here is the correct one:

      [ asafoetida] [ asafoetida silfio]

      Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West
      By John M. Riddle
      How we can judge the effectiveness of an extinct plant?... Used as contraception.

      [real silphium coin]

      Coin Archives

      [silphium unknown facts]

      The Original Seed Pod That May Have Inspired the Heart Shape"...There are also plenty of other theories about where the heart shape came from, ranging from a Catholic saint’s divine hallucinations to a bad organ description by Aristotle..."

      Answer to Q 2: Silphium taste similar in cooking to fennel (Hinojo in Spanish)

  7. Devil's Dung, asafoetida, “Cyrenian silphium” successor/cousin?
    Salon article from 1999 (a 'Mike' duplicate)
    Silphium rediscovered?
    similar, in Israel
    a North American cuz?
    Cup plant, wiki:"The people of the Chippewas tribe used the root extract for back and chest pains, to prevent excessive menstruation, and to treat lung hemorrhage"
    deadly carrots - novel notion
    off subject… what I was reading before deadly carrots —
    Pat de Groot
    "(Request: Might the type-window for our comments be expanded far beyond the current 5 lines?)"
    Mike - fwiw… a suggestion, I type my responses in an email, then copy & paste to the comment box - find it has numerous benefits & easier to edit along the way,
    easier to see, etc..

    1. Thanks, remmij. I already do the same. I'm just hoping to eliminate the extra steps of copy/paste etc., in case the comment window size is a parameter than can be easily changed. :-)

    2. Alas, it is not an easy-to-change parameter... but I'll definitely talk with the Blogger folks and see if they can't do something about it!

    3. Mike, Dan… I hadn't payed attention to this before… it was a "duh moment" for me…
      cBox sizing

    4. Thanks, remmij! I hadn't been aware of that uber-tiny indicator before. It works perfectly!!

  8. I write up my notes in Editpad then paste into the tiny wee window.

    [ancient rome valuable plant] Top of the Chart is Wikipedia starring Silphium. Just as interesting as the article is the Talk section. This article has had a lot of input.

    Perhaps contemporary flavours might be, it says, fennel or cooked asafoetida.

    Perhaps lost due to overexploitation.

    This was a great treat to find something so curious. jon tU

  9. A simple Google search <> resulted in a Wikipedia page on Silphium. I followed with a Scholar search <> which led me to the article “The Silphium of the Ancients: A Lesson in Crop Control .“

    The journal Isis was located in JSTOR. Andrews (1941) provides a comprehensive discussion on the identity of the plant. Although the article is not recent, it nonetheless has the hallmarks of a seminal article, so I believed that it would be unlikely that more recent works would not cite this article, so I used the Cited by feature in Scholar.

    This resulted in the following article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances.” Totelin (2015) Identifies 7 possible candidates in the literature.

    Another really interesting article found using this search method is “Silphion revisited” in the newsletter of the Medicinal Plant Specialists Group (who use an image of the plant as their logo) Kiehn (2007) casts doubt on the often claims of use in birth control/ contraception/abortion. She suggests that the “facts” about the plant are often based on misinterpretations or wishful thinking, but seems convinced that it is indeed extinct.

    1. Thanks for mentioning the Cited by feature. I don't use Scholar very often, but I can see how that feature would be useful.

  10. Replies
    1. Great point... I'll write up a short post about how to use the "expander" UI widget in the comment field. (But I probably won't mention "devil's dung," except in passing...

  11. I searched for "ancient Rome" and valuable plant lost. First hit was a Wikipedia article on silphium. Very interesting! Now I have a question: is there a term for what happens when someone starts talking about something obscure online, thereby making it less obscure for subsequent searchers?

    1. Maybe it's SearchResearch, as in the sentence: "I never knew there was a plant that was called a laser, but now that topic has been SearchResearched."

  12. I arrived late, chose not to do the search research, and went straight to look at the other answers [who says that is not a valid means of research!!].
    My curiosity of botany and agriculture reminded me ...
    phytoestrogens can be a big problem for agriculture.
    In about 1983, the State of South Australia got seriously sued for promoting Yarloop clover in a lamb producing region ... you guessed it, no lambs. The ewes were all effectively on the pill. And wethers started looking feminine.
    See more at:

  13. 1. Silphium. A search for [ancient rome medicine plants] pulled up a few academic sources that spoke about the extinction. The reasons is not known, but the it’s believed to have become extinct because of over harvesting and overgrazing. It was a difficult plant to grow by manual labor and the Roman empire coveted and hoarded the stuff. So, its reasonable to assume that the economic forces were to great for the plant to withstand.

    2. It’s likely that fennel might be an appropriate substitute, since it is a species of giant fennel, Ferula. I got to this answer from the work I did in my first search. This information was all over the place.