Silphium is an herb that grew near Cyrene in what is now Libya on the north coast of Africa. The herb is now presumed to be extinct.
It is not entirely clear what plant it was, though of course there is much speculation. The stalk seems to have been like that of fennel. It grew clusters of small yellow flowers.
Cyrene was a Greek colony established by Sparta. The height of production was between 7th and 2nd centuries BC. The Greeks did try to transplant it for cultivation in other areas, but not successfully. It was, some people think, already practically extinct by the 1st century AD due to overharvesting. Pliny (XIX.39) wrote that the last known single stalk of silphium was sent to the emperor Nero (reigned 54 to 68 AD).  “Unus omnino caulis nostra memoria repertus Neroni principi missus est…” Pliny (XIX.39)
Uses for silphium
Silphium was popular in Greece, and very expensive. It was used as a condiment, as a vegetable, as a food preservative, and as a medicine. The Greeks grated it over food, and cooked the stalk like a vegetable. The Ancient Egyptians felt that it helped them with birth control.
The collection of recipes attributed to the Roman gourmet Apicius calls on silphium in some recipes, and even gives directions on how to stretch one’s supply:
“Making a Little Laser Go a Long Way: Put the [silphium] in a spacious glass vessel; immerse about 20 pine kernels (pignolia nuts). If you need [silphium] flavor, take some nuts, crush them; they will impart to your dish an admirable flavor. Replace the used nuts with a like number of fresh ones.”  Apicius: De Re Coquinaria. Book 1, 15. Walter M. Hill, 1936. Note that in Apicius, silphium is referred to as “laser”.
The Apicius suggestion is reminiscent of how cooks today stretch a vanilla bean’s flavour by putting the bean in sugar to impart the flavour to the sugar.
An extract named ‘laserpicium’ was derived from the plant’s resin. (‘Laser”, and ‘laserpicium’ were also other names for the plant.)
Literature & Lore
In her peer-reviewed paper, “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances”, noted classicist Laurence Totelin writes about the presumed disappearance of silphium:
[Silphium] was a plant from Cyrene (a Greek city-state in northern Africa); growing only in the wild and with a limited geographical distribution. The Greeks had attempted to grow it in the Peloponnese and in Ionia, but had failed (Diseases 4.34; edition Potter, 2012: 104). Theophrastus of Eresus mentions silphium among those plants that are ‘emasculated’ (ekthēlunetai) by cultivation: ‘for it does not have the same pungency [when cultivated] because its nourishment is too abundant and watery’ (Causes of Plants 3.1.3 and 5; edition: Einarson and Link, 1990a: 4–8). There was no choice but to import it at great cost from Cyrene (Aristophanes, Plutus 923–925). In the first century CE, the plant was reported to be extinct. The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) wrote that:
“It has not been found in this land [Cyrene] for many years, because the tax-farmers who rent the pasture-land destroy it by grazing sheep on it, believing that they would make more profit this way. There has only been one stem found in living memory; it was sent to the Emperor Nero [Natural History 19.39; edition: Rackham, 1950: 444].”
This explanation is spurious for two reasons. First, the price of silphium is always reported as high; how could tax-farmers have believed they could make more profit by using the land for pasture? Second, we find references to silphium in texts well beyond the first century CE. This second point can be explained in two ways: either the plant was not really extinct or people were now using a replacement plant: the silphium from Media or Persia, identified with our asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida L.) (on the possible extinction of silphium, see: Andrews, 1941; Parejko, 2003; Roques, 1984). Indeed thanks to descriptions in ancient texts and representations on Cyrenaic coins, we can identify silphium with an umbellifer quite similar to Ferula asafoetida L. (family: Apiaceae). The real identity of silphium, however, remains a mystery…” Totelin, Laurence. “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances.” Journal of ethnopharmacology vol. 167 (2015): 30-7. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2014.08.018
She goes on to note that silphium was regarded as having some medicinal applications:
Recent studies on silphium’s ancient medical properties have focused on its use as a contraceptive/abortive (Riddle, 1991, 1992, 1997) or as an aphrodisiac (although scholars who have advanced this hypothesis recognise it is not substantiated in ancient texts; Koerper and Kolls, 1999; Koerper and Moerman, 2000). There were other uses of the plant, however. In the Hippocratic Corpus, it is listed in the catalogue of foods in Regimen in Acute Diseases (chapter 68; edition Joly, 1972: 89–90), and it is recommended as a food in ‘windy diets’.” Ibid.
There was apparently a great of hype about silphium and silphium products in its heyday. Antiphanes (circa 408 to 334 BC), a poet from Athens, visited Cyrene. While leaving, he wrote: “I will not sail back to the place from which we were carried away, for I want to say goodbye to all horses, silphium, chariots, silphium stalks, steeplechasers, silphium leaves, fevers, and silphium juice.”
Possible identifications for silphium
The Greek writer Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), considered by some to be the father of botany, described silphium:
The silphium has a great deal of thick root; its stalk is like ferula in size, and is nearly as thick; the leaf which they call maspeton, is like celery and of a golden color; it has a broad seed, which is leaf-like, and is called the phyllon. The stalk lasts only a year, like that of ferula. Now in spring it sends up this maspeton, which purges sheep and greatly fattens them, and makes their flesh wonderfully delicious; after that it sends up a stalk, which is eaten, it is said, in all ways, boiled and roast, and this too, purges the body in forty days. It has two kinds of juice, the ‘stalk-juice,’ and the ‘root-juice.’ The root has a black bark, which is stripped off. Others say that the root of silphion grows to the length of a cubit [about 18 inches] or a little longer, and in the middle of this is a head, which is the highest part and almost comes above ground, and is called the ‘milk’; from this then grows the stalk and from that the magydaris which is also called the phyllon; but it is really the seed, and, when a strong south wind blows after the setting of the dog-star, it is scattered abroad and the silphion grows from it. The root and the stalk grow in the same year.” Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants. Sir Arthur Hort transation, 1916. VI, III, 1-3)
Asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) is sometimes suggested as the silphium that the Greeks and Romans used.
Over the years, scholars have proposed other possible identifications for silphium. Some have suggested that it is even still amongst us, just under a different name. Laurence Totelin, the scholar mentioned above, sums up some of them in this table from her “When foods become remedies” paper. Totelin, op. cit.
|Identification proposed by||Year when the identification was proposed||Identification proposed||Reference|
|Kurt P.J. Sprengel||1807||Ferula tingitana L.||Sprengel, 1807: 39–40|
|Paolo Della-Cella and Domenico Viviani||1817||Thapsia silphium⁎||Della Cella and Viviani, 1819; Cauvet, 1875: 13|
|Heinrich Link||1818||Laserpitium gummiferum Desf.=Margotia gummifera (Desf.) Lange||Schneider, 1818: 483|
|Ørsted||1869||Ferula narthex Boiss.||Ørsted, 1869|
|M. Laval||1874||Thapsia garganica L.||Cauvet, 1875: 11|
|M.A.T. Vercoutre||1908||Lodoicea Sechellarum Labill.||Vercoutre, 1913|
|A.Manuta||1996||Cachrys ferulacea L.||Manunta, 1996|
Ken Parejko (Department of Biology, University of Wisconsin) reminded everyone in his 2003 paper on silphium not to get too attached to any possible identification. He wrote that “because we cannot even accurately identify the plant we cannot [even] know for certain whether it is extinct…” Parejko, K (2003). “Pliny the Elder’s Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction”. Conservation Biology. 17 (3): 925–927. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.02067.x.
The Greeks called it silphion (σίλφιον.) The name silphium has since been applied to the plant whose roots asafoetida is now made from, as well as to some herbs found in North America.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||“Unus omnino caulis nostra memoria repertus Neroni principi missus est…” Pliny (XIX.39)|
|2.||↑||Apicius: De Re Coquinaria. Book 1, 15. Walter M. Hill, 1936. Note that in Apicius, silphium is referred to as “laser”.|
|3.||↑||Totelin, Laurence. “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances.” Journal of ethnopharmacology vol. 167 (2015): 30-7. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2014.08.018|
|5.||↑||Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants. Sir Arthur Hort transation, 1916. VI, III, 1-3)|
|6.||↑||Totelin, op. cit.|
|7.||↑||Parejko, K (2003). “Pliny the Elder’s Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction”. Conservation Biology. 17 (3): 925–927. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.02067.x.|